To be born in the year of 9/11

September 18, 2020

One week ago, this country observed a solemn occasion of remembrance to mark the 19th anniversary of the September 11 calamity. Flags throughout America streamed from half-mast out of respect for the fallen, public schools fell into momentary silence and the site of the fallen towers were once again illuminated in twin pillars of light. No doubt the latter remains a moving sight to behold, a radiant apparition cast into the heavens without regard for pandemic nor time, reflective of a tragedy rendered immortal for the ages. In this regard it is helped, of course, by the sober fact that it occurred in the first year of what was a new millennium.

It is often apparent to those born of a particular year that history looms over them with an immutable shadow. If one is born in 1939 or 1945, no matter who it is, the first association will always be with World War II. At a national level, of course, the association may vary according to its local significance. In this country, 1941, the year my grandfather was born, will forever be overshadowed by the strike at Pearl Harbor, the date of which was proclaimed by Franklin Roosevelt to “live in infamy.” Likewise, an American born in 1963 has long since learned to live with the subordination of the memory of their birth year to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. If “John Smith” were born in the year of a particularly shocking tragedy, he will discover that the first impression the public will receive at the mention of his birth year is the memory of the tragedy itself. 

The rules do not bend for 2001, the year in which I was born and the first year for Americans since 1963 to wield a transgenerational connotation. I, like all others born in 2001, have grown accustomed to a tragic association with 2001 that is absent for those born in 2000 or 2002. 

No doubt that this is demonstrative of the terrible symbolism of the event itself—that in the ten years since the implosion of the Soviet Union, this country had endured a degree of global preeminence and internal prosperity that was without precedent for any living nation. So great was its perception of invulnerability that to be struck on Sept. 11 delivered an unthinkable blow—delivered at the moment in which the powers of this country were at their zenith and its image was at its most invincible. Naturally, the physical and economic damage was absorbed with swiftness, and the Union endured on as a great nation, but the illusion of impermeability had vanished. 

There was a moment, for a brief period in time, in which the “end of history” was envisioned with the destruction of the Marxist-Leninist “Second World” in 1989; there was a fleeting time in which hostile blocs were expected no longer, and no menace—whatever it was—could again acquire the strength to resist the ubiquity of the democratic way of life. This notion of absolute invulnerability, as was discovered on the date of Sept. 11, 2001, is impossible; there is no right for any civilization to succumb to the fatal complacency of its position; no quantity of wealth, no degree of power in the world can justify a disregard for the essential conditions of life. No one should ever feel so bold as to feel that they have risen above the normative constraints of nature, against the need to continue in the participation and defense of the timeless things that render life meaningful.

The event, of course, will overshadow the lifetimes of those who were born in 2001 and be remembered throughout all subsequent history of the Republic. This shadow has already been accepted by we who are called the “9/11 generation”—that is to say, those whose earliest wakeful memories exist in a world in which the towers had already been toppled. Its legacy informs our consciousness, and distinguishes us from the millennials and other such generations that had witnessed the 90s. Their confidence in themselves is received with a certain apathy and unsettledness on the part of this generation. 

But the anxieties of this 9/11 generation are matched in equal magnitude by our passion and ambition, for the preeminent dream to which we are dedicated is the formation of a more secure world for the things we cherish. Where 9/11 proved that nothing must be taken for granted, this rising generation—which now faces the suddenness of the pandemic, too—recognizes more than the previous generation that there is beauty in this world, and it requires protection. The blessings of life and the resources of the earth must be stabilized and conserved to forestall the prospect of their abrupt confiscation. The pursuit of a safer world, one which knows the value of such precious things, thus holds special promise in the hearts of the young. For no cohort is this reminder more omnipresent than for those of us born in 2001, its tragic memory looming high behind us. Therefore, while it is too soon yet to say how this generation will turn the wheels of the world, the legacy of 9/11 will forever constitute the foundation of who we are to be.

May the fallen of that date be remembered in perpetuity.

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