What this generation of college students remembers about 9/11

Tuesday (May 3rd), I postponed a lecture on the 12th Century Renaissance and replaced it with a period devoted to reflection in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death.  This was at least partially selfish, or maybe it was just closure.  I was a junior in Washington DC, living on campus during 9/11.  When the first of the Twin Towers were hit I was actually in the Basilica on campus in Northeast DC.  By the time I had made it back to my place, the second tower was hit, and then the Pentagon.  Classes were cancelled.  The phone lines were swamped.  Planes were grounded.  First campus, and then the city shut down.  One of the strongest memories I have is of sitting alone on a picnic table in the courtyard and listening to . . . nothing!  All of the city’s normal background rumbles and grumbles were stilled.  There was no car noise.  Occasionally, you would hear the fighter jets soaring overhead, but you never saw them.

In classes, once they resumed, we naturally talked about the events.  In one class, we were discussing the argument against 1) a God, 2) a benevolent God or 3) an all-powerful God based on the existence of evil in the world.  He had assigned us Elie Wiesel’s Night, because in his experience, modern youth–at least, up to that point–had lost belief of evil in the world.  9/11 fit right in.  In another class, an introduction to archaeology, we tabled the day’s intended course material to talk about what happened and why.  While I was a fairly plugged in youth, I confess that I had never heard of Osama bin Laden before 9/11.  We had a lot of questions about why anyone would want to do this.  I find it interesting that many college students today have the same questions, today, as we did then.

Most of my students who are properly college-aged, 17, 18, 19, 20, recall having a difficult time processing all of it.  I asked them if they related to the images–if they even seemed real or like Hollywood reproductions.  The majority admitted they did not unless they had a personal connection to the catastrophe, such as a missing family member.  Even those on military bases could not really understand what others around them were feeling.  One student candidly confessed that she and her brother were pulled out of school, watched the images on TV at home, but mostly remember playing outside all day while all the grownups were occupied.

I next asked them when bin Laden and 9/11 became events that they understood as real catastrophes and not just global events.  Many could not relate until they were in high school and looked back on the events on their own.  For some, it is clear, they never really became anything more than a background tapestry of distant world events.  To be fair, this is pretty normal for young people.  Most children in tween and young teen years would be very upset if they were told that their parents had accidentally hit an animal with the family car, but relating to the tragic events in Haiti a couple years back, more recently in Japan and even the tornadoes here in the U.S. are too distant and wide to grasp by young minds that have not personally lost someone or something or witnessed the terror firsthand.

The result of this is that many were relatively unmoved by Osama bin Laden’s death, or at minimum less moved then people my age and older.  A student in a colleague’s class was angry about all the attention it was getting–my colleague incidentally was working in the financial district of New York City during the attack and has strong personal connections to the attacks.  That student was far more concerned about a local murder in Baltimore, which my colleague acknowledged was valid, but did not make bin Laden’s death any less relevant.  On the contrary, my colleague argued, bin Laden does matter.  Many of our students clearly felt he had ceased to be relevant by this point.

This is one of the magazines I purchased after the attacks.

What bin Laden’s death did for some in this younger generation was reawaken questions that had existed, perhaps all along, and not yet been answered for them.  Students who followed current events or who had personal attachments to the events, i.e. people in DC or NY, or serving in the military, were clearly more effected and interested.  Perhaps, this reveals a certain failure on everyone else’s part to explain current events.

For me, this class time was closure–almost more so then the actual news about bin Laden’s death.  Or, maybe it is better described as the conclusion of the story arc.  Granted, I was still pretty young then, but 9/11 left me off-balance.  It dominated my thinking for days and I was almost too stunned to be angry.  My memories of 9/11 are inextricably tied to those two classes and professors.  Perhaps it is because I have an academic turn of mind, more likely because it was simply the setting in which I experienced the attacks, but in discussing bin Laden and 9/11 memories with my class I personally put something profound in my life to rest.

It is also sobering to think about how quickly time moves on.  A handful of students saw the second plane hit live and remembered that, while others only remembered the replayed scenes and the pictures in every newspaper and magazine the days after.  Young minds cannot really cope with global events in the same way that they will when they experience similar events as they are older.  I wonder what it would have been like for my students to have written down a journal entry about 9/11 the week it had happened, and then to have sat down and read it this week.  I wonder how many people did exactly that this week.

FBI Top Ten Most Wanted usama-bin-laden


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