Ground zero’s children

14 years ago, we woke up to a very different landscape in the United States, and not just in lower Manhattan. The metaphorical and cultural landscape of this country changed radically with the fall of the Twin Towers as well as the collision into the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania that likely averted an attack on a third target. Even as the news was repeating the same paltry information over and over again and commentators were struggling to come up with something to say, the writing was on the wall: The United States was about to change, and likely not for the better.

I talk about the events of 11 September as a turning point when I think about them because they are; the incident is one of those events that shaped the direction of the United States, and it’s an event iconic in the minds of those who lived through it and touched it. For those who were there, an intense, traumatic, bitter memory. For those of us more remote, something we strive to grasp — we all look for stories of our connections to the events of the day, to situate ourselves in the drama in some way or another. It is the Kennedy assassination for a new generation, and today, it turns 14.

Which means that there are people who just entered high school who weren’t even alive when it happened, or were too young to remember. It reminds me in a way of my connection to the HIV/AIDS crisis, born at the peak of the crisis, too young to live through the heart of it, yet old enough to experience the aftermath first hand. My generation lives in an awkward, slippery balance point. We weren’t the ones watching our friends die around us, but we saw what happened to our parents, and we saw what happened to the regulatory systems surrounding us: The changes in policies regarding the blood supply, the passage of the ADA, the growth of exclusion laws targeting HIV positive immigrants. We didn’t see the triggering events firsthand, or were too young to comprehend them, but we lived with what the generation before us left behind.

The same is true of those freshpeople entering the halls of high schools across the country today, just a few weeks into their first semester of a turning point in their own lives. They weren’t there when teachers across the country turned on the news so their students could watch the towers fall, when college students crowded into classrooms with televisions and computers to watch senseless information appear on loop. They weren’t there for the first stirrings of anxious conversations as people wondered what would happen next and predicted the inevitable. They weren’t there for the assaults on anyone who looked Middle Eastern, for the targeting of Sikhs and Muslims.

Or they were there, but they were too young to truly witness or understand it. For them, 11 September is an abstraction, a date important in history, like 22 November 1963, but it’s what happened next that they see. They grew up in a time of endless war, have known nothing else in their entire lives than war and security theatre and talk of terrorism and militarism. They accept hawkish presidents and officials because it’s all they’ve ever seen. They’ve never seen a president play the sax at a nominating convention, and the only controversy they’ve seen over a blue dress has been a day when the internet endured a bout of mass silliness for a day.

These 14-year-olds are as old as ground zero, as old as a monumental shift in culture, but no older, and when they write about the formative events in their own lives years in the future, I wonder what they will say about us, the generation that watched this happen and then proceeded to monumentally fuck it up. My generation is filled with soldiers and sailors and air crews who went to war and came back with their own complex legacies. It’s filled with the complacent acceptance and subtle tacit approval of security culture, of people who agreed to take their shoes off at security and were surprised when the NSA revealed that it was listening to their phones. My generation is filled with people who elected a president on a tattered cloud of false hopes and seemed genuinely astonished when that cloud was burned away by the bright light of the national stage.

Here we are at 14. Soon ground zero will get a driver’s license and want to pack up to go to college. Then it will be graduating and plunging into the world. Its memory of the details will be hazy, vague, and it will listen impatiently while another generation tells it stories about where it was when it found out, what it did, what happened next. These stories won’t seem particularly important in light of the next big adventure, even as that adventure is overshadowed by what 11 September, and our response to it, hath wrought.

I see students streaming out of the high school when I drive by sometimes in the afternoons, dispersing to buses and their cars and walking home, and I think about the world we built for them. My generation isn’t the only one that’s complicit, of course; we have those older and in power to thank for that. But we played our role, and we owe it to the babies of ground zero to own up to that.

Image: Twin Towers 21, in.formed, Flickr