When I was in elementary school – I can’t remember how old I was, maybe nine – my family and I took a cross-country drive to visit our relatives in New Jersey. Once there, my cousins, my brother and I made what was undoubtedly mediocre lemonade, which we attempted to sell to the very few passersby in the small lakeside town. We caught fireflies, which I had never seen before. There were pranks – my cousin startled me by puffing on a cigarette in her bedroom, which turned out to be a gag made out of candy. There was a game of Ouija, played in whispers in the dark, that landed me in serious hot water. We also, very briefly, went to New York City.
By went to New York City, what I really mean is, we mostly drove through it other than a stop for pizza (our Brooklyn-born mom insisted that we learn what “real” pizza tasted like). By the time we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on the way out of the city, I was worn out and grumpy, and very ready to get out of a family-packed Taurus wagon. So when my parents requested that I turn around and look at the country’s tallest buildings behind me, I sulked and ignored them. But suddenly, as we approached the bridge-end, I experienced that surge of regret and longing for inclusion that is so specific to stubborn children, and turned around, wiggling out of my seat belt, to peer at the twin towers of the World Trade Center through the back window. They were so tall I couldn’t even see them the tops of them.
When I was 13, I watched those towers, and the lives in and among them, destroyed on live television with the rest of the country, and certainly much of the world.
Years later, on a trip back east for a cousin’s wedding, my mom and I visited the memorial site. The museum still wasn’t done, and neither was the Freedom Tower beside it. But the main feature was. Looking down into the black stone squares carved into the earth, which are the actual size of the towers’ footprints, and at the seemingly bottomless waterfalls pouring from their sides, I thought how glad I was that I had looked back all those years before. It occurs to me now that we have been looking back ever since.
It is no secret that 9/11, and the months that followed, shaped our American reality as we know it today into something totally different than what we had known before. But while Generation X, Baby Boomers and the eldest Americans had lived for decades in pre-9/11 America, the Millennial generation experienced the shift as children and young adults, the reality of our formative years grossly punctuated and realigned by a national tragedy that would become our longest war. The youngest among our generation were born into the new America, never having known the one before it, never having to ask their guardians, as I had done, “What’s terrorism?”
September 11 has become a national day of remembrance and reflection, as it should be. For many years, much of this reflection has been devoted to the memory of the lives lost, as it should be. Now, just two years away from the 20th anniversary, it seems fitting that we also use it to reflect upon the way the event changed our country and our lives, and how best to continue to move forward.
As I wrote in my column at the same time last year, our country experienced a great sense of unity in the days and weeks immediately following 9/11. But fast forward to 2019, and we have become a country that is deeply divided. Our states, counties and cities are defined by Red and Blue. There is little room for purple. Elected leadership can’t even come together after tragedies – instead, pointing fingers at each other. Their constituents follow suit. Little, it seems, gets done.
The immobility of elected leadership, who seem to be choked by partisan allegiance, is perhaps why more Millennials (44%) identify as independents than with a party, per the Pew Research Center. And I would hazard to guess that our memory and experience of what patriotism means as the generation that experienced 9/11 in our formative years may also have something to do with this.
While at first, as an 8th grade kid, it seemed in the days following that tragedy that patriotism meant displaying flags and singing inspirational country songs and holding telethons, it over time sunk in that patriotism is about unity. It’s about holding up your neighbor, despite your differences, in the name of something greater – your unified belief in freedom, and democracy, and ye olde American dream. Are so many of us who learned this in our formative years identifying as independents because we now live in a country in which the P word governing this country is no longer Patriotism, but Party? I posit this: Party has poisoned patriotism. I would alliterate on this topic for an eternity if it would get anybody to listen.
On this day of remembrance, the national mood is rather sour. Much like a late-night fight between spouses, using retrospective to hash out and re-litigate the events that brought us here perhaps will only result in more dissension – behavior, I would argue, that is least appropriate to engage in on 9/11, of all days. So rather than further contribute to that mood with a deluge of complaints, might I suggest we learn to look back without becoming crystallized by our sins?
Instead of engaging in political volleyball, perhaps a better way to reflect is to consider what positive ways our country, and the future prospects of its young people, have changed since 9/11. And, on the flip side, in what ways have their future prospects diminished? Why? Millennials are often called the 9/11 generation. What does that mean, and what will we make of it? What lessons can we harness from those years that followed 9/11 in order to make a better America for its children?