September 11th was the day the 90s ended. That decade was less a time frame, or even a mindset, for those of a certain age. For many of us, it was a sanctuary, a time before adulthood, but more importantly, a time before now. In some ways 90s nostalgia has become a crutch, a distraction from the 21st century’s hellish start. It seems that my generation—so called “millennials”—took the nostalgia express lane, yearning for the 90s before their 20s were over and reflecting almost wistfully on 9/11.
Like most folks, I’m troublingly eager to share my 9/11 story.
It was warm, as early September days on the Mid-Atlantic Coast usually are. It was pleasant, blue skies, no threat of rain. Seemed to be that way up and down the east coast, as I’d later see on the news. I was en route to Wolf Trap with my classmates for a rare, early-in-the-year field trip. And then it happened:
The bus stops. I don’t know why. We turn around. Our teachers tell us what happened in New York City and in Arlington, but only give a rough outline. We go home. I watch the news and make sure our loved ones are okay. We low-key rejoice for having the day off until everything—planes running into towers, people covered in soot stumbling away, and that bewildered look on the President’s face after someone told him what had happened—until all of that sinks in and the next chapter of my life begins.
September 11th seems to be a day that impacted everyone differently, yet everyone seems to have similar memories, especially if they’re of a certain age. Remember going to the store with your mom to stock up “just in case”? Having dreams about airplanes flying into your house? Learning how to pronounce and then immediately loathe Osama bin Laden’s name? Aye. Me, too.
I know you’ve heard this story before. I know you’ve heard it from a million 20- and-30-somethings by now. I respect that. But I need to tell you mine. Because it messed me up. It’s been 15 years and I still don’t know how far the rabbit hole goes, personally, societally. I don’t know how much more will be demanded of us—not just the American people, but the global community—all in the name of 9/11. I know what I saw and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. What I remember most is that I didn’t understand what had happened and I made light of it until my sister scolded me and I recanted.
Then I saw the images again and that’s when it set in. It’s hard for me to imagine waking up, reading the headlines, and not seeing items related to our on-going presence in the Middle East. This stopped being the “new normal” years ago.
In the years following the attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, newspapers published pieces and forgotten history was resurfaced that helped explain the last 60 years of Middle Eastern cultural, political, and religious history. U.S.-backed coups and land grabs had helped to turn the desert into fertile ground for warped, religious fundamentalism whose adherents claimed their interpretation of Islam was the true Islam. And, consequently, the people who masterminded the September 11th attacks had once been backed by western powers in order to fight yesterday’s boogiemen. So warning lights had flashed brightly for years, signaling to us that something aggression or relation was imminent. But those warnings went unheeded.
The events of that day could have been avoided. The intelligence was there, collected by several agencies that, had they coordinated might have been able to anticipate, if not stop, the attacks. And so I, like the rest of the world, saw those two planes hit the Twin Towers.
How could I feel any other way than that 9/11 was decades in the making, made possible by a tremendous team effort.
I hope I and my generation will come to realize that bashing the decisions older generations made or didn’t make does no good. At the same time, as the next generation of leaders, we must study and learn from the past while remembering we’re not still living the past, and in some ways running from it. Fire and fear may be the current norm, but it shouldn’t be the permanent one. It can’t be.
September 11th—the day itself, the climate of fear it fostered, and the subsequent domestic and foreign conflicts—serve as a hard reminder that a society’s most important priority can’t be preserving the past. A great society’s most important mission is to build a stronger foundation for the future.
Our obligation to successive American leaders and American generations is clear—to ensure a future brighter than the present—and we have no shortage of tools at our disposal. We have a fighting force greater than any Roman Caesar could have hoped for, the whole of which is dedicated to preserving a republic. We have highly capable diplomats who help navigate geopolitical, scientific, and social labyrinths.
In the U.S. our have a national ethos demands we favor all angels. It’s written on preserved parchment that “all men are created equal” and it’s written in stone to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
The central tenets of American democracy call to all—regardless of any social, political, or economic distinction and demands that everyone living, working, and playing here ought to live by those time-honored ideals of “liberty, brotherhood, and equality.”
We can open our homes, our churches, our schools, our lives, to those facing war, poverty, and oppression abroad as we have for centuries. We can learn about ourselves, our circumstances, our privilege and our pitfalls, our allies, and even our enemies and work toward improving our nation. We can take the ideals spelled out for us—from Jefferson to Lincoln to King—and put them into practice.
We have experience. We have context. We have allies. We have empathy. We have bravery.
We—regardless of virtually any social, political, or ideological persuasion—can prevent this, or something like it, from happening again. That has to be 9/11’s enduring legacy. If we don’t learn that lesson, posterity will rightfully judge us as failures, leaving an unforgettable legacy best left unremembered.
It feels sometimes like our current legacy is that we cannot and will not learn from our mistakes, that we’re content to leave the mess we’ve created for our children to fix. When I dream of what we could be is a society I think of this Greek proverb: “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
We can do that by placing altruism at the top of our list of national values and living our lives accordingly. We can do that by electing national leaders—rare as they may be—who value compassion and empathy more than power. And most importantly, we can do that in our daily lives and teach our children to do the same, in ways both big and small. An extra trip to the soup kitchen, speaking up when you see people treating each other cruelly, helping someone who’s fallen and needs a helping hand.
That’s how you stand up to bullies and terrorist. That’s how you show them they’re beat.
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Christopher Thomas is a reporter and classical music host for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. He previously worked at The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina as a general assignment reporter and has experience waiting tables, delivering pizzas, and amateur theater. He is a graduate of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina where he studied Communication with a concentration in journalism.