On September 11, 2001, I was only 13 years old and in my first few weeks as a freshman at Loyola Blakefield
in Towson, MD.
I first remember hearing about it from a friend and classmate in the hallway, on my way to Geometry class -- I thought it was a joke and I laughed it off. A large, commercial airplane hitting a skyscraper seemed like something out of a Die Hard
movie and not possibly real. But when I made it to the classroom, my Geometry teacher -- a middle-aged, very stoic, Southern man -- was sitting in the dark, with tears streaming down his face. A TV had been placed in the front-center of the room, with one of the news channels turned on.
We watched as the North Tower burned and news anchors speculated about what may have happened -- we were curious and glad to be focused on something other than geometry, but still unaware of the broader context. Then, as we saw the second plane strike the South Tower at 09:03 EDT, it began to hit home that something was wrong. Even at that sheltered age, it felt seriously wrong, with a sinking, gnawing feeling in my stomach and a voice of panic rising in the back of my mind.
It wasn't long before we found ourselves outside, with the rest of the Upper and Lower schools, receiving a short briefing on what had happened and that we were going home for the rest of the day. I can still remember the odd stillness of that morning: bright, beautiful, and clear skies; an open sky without any air traffic; roads that were strangely empty. I had never noticed the general background noise that comes with living on the edge of a major city until it was gone.
After my brother and I made it home, I went to our home office in the basement, put CNN on the TV, and immediately went online, looking for answers. This was an era before online news, social media, and blogs: this was the era of dial-up, DSL, and low-quality cable internet connections. At 13 years old, I knew enough to understand I was under-informed and without context for what was happening. I spent the better part of the rest of the day searching what passed for online news services at the time, discussing the events with my friends and classmates via instant messenger, and keeping an eye on CNN.
We watched President George W. Bush's national address as a family and I vaguely recall not going back to school right away. I remember looking at the skies whenever I was outside. I remember seeing the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon and thinking it paled in size and scope to the Twin Towers. I remember the unsettling feeling that began to grow inside me, as if my previous frames of reference were inadequate and things would never be the same. I remember this as the day that I began to, very strongly, pay attention to news and politics, both domestic and foreign.
Although the sinking, gnawing feeling in my stomach and the voice of panic in the back of my mind both faded, my interest in current events did not. My dedication to understanding came roaring back when we began operations in Afghanistan and, again, in Iraq: I watched the initial "shock and awe" campaign of Baghdad live on CNN and did research on these two countries I had barely even heard of. But, for the day to day of my teenage life, I didn't feel as if much had changed, besides an enhanced awareness of terrorism and the general fragility of life.
Looking back now, however, I see the effects of September 11, 2001 differently.
I struggled to find a place to fit-in during the first half of high school, particularly since I felt alot of the social groups and interests were meaningless and generally without purpose. I fought my way through history and government classes -- loudly protesting their seeming irrelevance to modern life (and eventually realized I was very clearly wrong) -- even as I started developing my media consumption habits. I began to feel a profound respect and reverence for those in the military, law enforcement, and public safety communities. I thought very heavily and deeply about religion and, not long after the events of 9/11, declared myself an atheist -- a conviction I hold to this day -- even as I attended a Jesuit school and intelligently argued my way through religion classes, protested generalizations of belief systems, and defended my right to my own beliefs. I became a much more dark and pessimistic teenager, drawn to the themes found within heavy metal music and science fiction books, in direct opposition to the more light and fun years other teenagers always seemed to have.
Due to my status as a computer programmer and web coder since the age of 12, I went to college (at a Jesuit university) for Computer Engineering but found myself bored, listless, and unhappy. After two years, I changed schools and switched to Computer Science, but still felt as if these studies -- meant to prepare me for the so-called real world -- were inadequate and unimportant in a grander context. On the suggestion of my advisor, I changed majors to Political Science and felt a huge difference in both myself and my work: political theory and international relations were fields in which I excelled and found purpose. With the encouragement of my professors and advisors, I pursued a graduate school career and ended up where I am now
: a security-oriented academic with primary interests in terrorism, law enforcement, and contextualizing security concerns.
Would all of this happened anyway? Would a previously quiet, happy, and content pre-teen go through these personal developments and struggles, only to discover that what they had always wanted wasn't enough? Would a young, tech-oriented, largely self-contained boy become so steadfastly interested in interconnected security issues without such a massive national security incident? Would otherwise promising careers in the private sector seem so false and empty without this early-stage contextualization?
It's hard to say, precisely.
Despite the lack of precision in such assessments, this was undoubtedly a defining moment for American Millennials. We may not have known it at the time, but this has substantially reoriented our worldview, changing what we accept as standard elements of modern life, and augmenting our assessments of risk, both individually and collectively. In terms of these systemic and sociopolitical changes, 9/11 is compared to Pearl Harbor
and I believe it is an apt comparison: both demonstrated that prior assumptions of safety and security were extraordinarily flawed, both gave birth to a military cohort bound by a single ideal and forged in a very particular field of fire, and both have forever scarred the American psyche. But while the lessons of Pearl Harbor were clear at the time, 9/11 was -- and remains -- far more murky in its lasting first-, second-, and third-order consequences.
With a generation now coming of age -- Generation Z -- that did not experience September 11, 2001 as anything more than a story or historical event illustrated through various forms of media, whether 9/11 will have a lasting cultural or sociopolitical effect remains to be seen. However, since these members of Generation Z have grown up within the consequences of 9/11, it seems unlikely they will experience the world altogether differently than I have for the last sixteen years. With Millennials coming into the age brackets of power and influence, my generation has the ability to better mould our world to our interconnected worldview -- however this is defined -- and seek to better the life of those who come after us. How we will do so is a very large unknown.
All I know is that while I didn't directly lose anyone that day -- fifteen years ago, now -- I did lose most of my innocence and naiveté. I know that the fear of something like that happening again -- on scales both large and small -- is what drives me to try to make sure it doesn't. I know that it very likely changed the course of my entire life, even if I didn't realize it until more than a decade later. I know that this day holds a darkly special place in the hearts of myself and others of similar ages. I know that there are others out there who seek to influence our culture and society as strongly as Osama bin Laden did. I know that there is now a large contingent of people -- myself included -- who work every day to keep Americans safe. I know that I still worry about planes flying too low or eerie background noise that seems too quiet.
I know that I still experience strong pulls of emotion when I come across videos, pictures, or stories of that day.
And I know that this will never go away -- it will be with me for the rest of my life.