Generation 9/11

What it meant to those who remember it

When veterans get together and talk about what happened to them in the war, that is a way for them to cope with trauma. When people ask: “Where have you been on 9/11?”, that is coping with trauma, too. In fact, it is an odd question — what does it matter? I recall asking it for the first time somewhat later in 2001. 20 years later, the same question is still being asked and I have yet to hear the answer “I don’t remember”. We have all been witnesses to something that has deeply shaken and unsettled us in our internal convictions about humanity. We can impossibly forget it, so we have been reviving and reliving it again and again over the years.

The incredible fear that the passengers and crews in the planes must have felt. The desperation of the people in the towers whose only decision left was whether to suffocate and burn or to fall to their deaths. The people vanishing in the gigantic dust clouds from the collapsing towers while they were trying to escape and to help. The horrors of the friends and families of the victims. The rage of everyone witnessing this act at those who had planned and executed it with precisely this intention in cold blood.

One generation’s pivotal moment

Especially if you were young, witnessing the 11th of September 2001 could be summed up into one essential disbelief: That people are not capable of doing something like that — when they had in fact just done it in plain sight of the world. Many generations have a pivotal moment like this when they are forced to make a realization about the wickedness that human existence can cause, from concentration camps in Germany over burning villages in Southeast Asia to mass murder sites around Srebrenica. 9/11 was one generation’s moment.

I was born in the mid-1980s, which puts me into these undefinable sociological borderlands between Generation X and the Millennials. If asked what distinguishes me from a Generation X type, I would reply that Kurt Cobain killed himself when I was nine. If asked why I do not consider myself a Millennial, I would argue that I remember 9/11.

That is what the people from my birth cohort have in common: We were just about to become aware of the world in the wider sense, looking at it still quite naively. Of course, we already knew there were wars and terror attacks happening in some places at the globe. But they still seemed far away from the relative tranquility of our early teenage years.

Our transition to the perception of the world as something fundamentally different than we had thought before was not gradual. It happened radically on this day in September. I recall from that day that one of my hands was constantly trembling, something that had never happened before. But it seemed appropriate for the occasion. There was no doubt that this was big — with consequences that would expand over years if not decades. 9/11 changed us as much as it changed the world which we had been living in.

At the same day, there was the sudden prospect of a War Against Terror, which was estimated to last up to ten years, a drastic underestimate. Actual wars were then started, declared won, eventually seen declining into an unending, bloody mess governed by improvised explosive devices, suicide attacks, tortures, and drone strikes. If 9/11 had demonstrated to us that there existed evil in the world on a scale we had not even imagined before, looking at the world during the decade that followed did not leave us with the impression that the good causes would eventually prevail — if there actually were any of them.

The cultural shift that followed

The gloom that 9/11 threw on the world was reflected in a cultural shift during the early 2000s. The late 90s had been a colorful spectacle of trash, an absurd celebration of the world united in being able to enjoy the merits of reality TV. There was nothing in the world to be taken seriously. The President of the United States was implicated in an affair about whether oral intercourse with a White House intern constituted a sexual relationship. More intellectually-minded observers called it the “End of History”. But it was not intended to last.

Obviously, the 2000s still had their share of absurdity and trash. But as a teenager, this period had an undertone of darkness blended into the usual anger, confusion, and sadness that teenagers of any generation get to experience quite unpreparedly. In these years, fans of rock music such as myself were drawn to a whole new repertory of bands that were all pretty angry, depressing, and dark. Hitting the Zeitgeist with dropped guitar tunings and dissonant riffs, they rose to mainstream attention.

Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington became an emblematic character of that period, expressing his traumata from childhood in the band’s lyrics. While many people who could identify with his music when growing up had been able to move on from there, Bennington could not. After he had ended his own life in 2017, it felt like a chapter from the past had been closed. If 9/11 marked a generation’s end of its childhood, Bennington’s death marked the end of its adolescence.

Closing the chapters

Another painstaking chapter from the past came to an end more recently with the Western retreat from Afghanistan. While many rational reasons for withdrawing can be presented, it might not have been a coincidence that some commentators, who roughly fit into the 9/11 generational cohort, have expressed a certain degree of relief over the retreat. The War in Afghanistan has been with us as long as 9/11 has been. In fact, 9/11 was the only reason why we ever got involved in Afghanistan. The war has been present essentially during our entire adult lifetime up to now. Maybe Generation 9/11 thought it was about time to be done with it.

Economist. Reader. Writer. Hiker.