A few months after September 11th when the horrors of that day had receded into ache and outrage, my son came up to me and said, “You know, Grandma and Grandpa had December 7th, and you and Mom had November 22nd, but until September 11th I hadn’t experienced a defining moment in time.”
It’s been ten years since 9/11 and I’m still thinking about his comment. He seemed to be saying that 9/11 was a generational event. “It’s an anchor in time,” my son said when questioned further. “I’ll always know where I was and what I was doing when the towers came down and those planes flew into the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.”
In that regard I understood what he meant. I wasn’t around at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, but I was eleven when Kennedy was assassinated. Like most folks, I still remember where I was when I heard the news—fifth grade at Jefferson School, late afternoon just before the bell ended classes that day. The announcement came over the intercom, and I was scribbling in my notebook and not paying attention until I heard our teacher sobbing and looked up to see her covering her face with her hands. I remember walking home from school thinking, What does it mean? I still wonder.
So when my son said September 11th left him with something I thought, What does he mean? The events of that day resulted in a bone-chilling tragedy of great complexity but for my son it represented something more. But was it generational? I felt traumatized by 9/11 as well, and I’m a generation removed from my son. Do we need tragedies to anchor us in time? Are we drifting on the wind like Forrest Gump’s feather until something bad grabs us and shakes us to our core, something so dreadful that it transcends time? Why can’t moments of happiness traumatize us for the better?
As I think about it, I realize that my son was right, but not in the way I thought. September 11th was a generational moment, not because it belonged to a single generation—young people like my son—but because it was a trans-generational moment shared by everyone with the capacity to feel pain and loss, revere heroism and respond to the suffering of the innocent. That dreadful day made us think about our loved ones in a different way. It blurred the differences between young and old, forced us to examine our lives and our actions and bound all of us into a powerful force for good—the 9/11 generation.
Tomorrow: Conclusion of Giant Killer