I do not remember September 11 very well, to be honest. I went to school that day: the bus driver had turned the radio up until it was deafening, but I did not listen or understand. We gathered by our lockers with a child’s vague awareness of unease. Seeing footage of the attacks on the television in my kitchen later that day, I thought it was a movie. It was merely a series of images: loosely connected, soundless. I was ten.
We invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq—places I had never heard of or noticed on a map. The next year in social studies, we watched a video about Saudi Arabia; afterwards, a girl raised her hand and asked why we were invading them. We knew there were Americans fighting far away but never really understood the details. I glanced at headlines about the capture of Saddam Hussein, fighting in Fallujah, the surge. My high school history teacher posted on the walls the names of the soldiers that had been killed, a list that grew and grew. I graduated.
I have never been to a funeral. Yet for all of us, the past ten years have been—if not defined, then enveloped by fear, death, war, and often hatred. It is perhaps a little too easy to muse about how our lives would be different if all of it had never happened. I would not find rumpled notes in my luggage informing me that it had been searched. I would be studying something different, likely somewhere closer to my hometown. The people who were killed on September 11, or those who paid the price of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, would still be alive.
It is only as an adult that I have come to realize the tragedy of that day and come to comprehend the loss and hurt it contained. I am a champion weeper (as anyone who has ever watched a movie with me can confirm), and lately I find myself having to turn off the radio as I drive before another survivor’s story or a grieving family member comes on to speak. The flurry of coverage—the replaying of footage of the planes hitting the towers, the reading of names, the unveiling of the memorial—is cathartic but overwhelming.
Much ink has been spilled as well on the policies that resulted, of torture and humiliation and blood sunk into rocks and sand. Today, Afghanistan and Iraq are not safe or whole. Neither are we.
Our generation was raised in the shadow of fear and in the midst of war. Ten years later, it still falls to us to pick up the pieces after September 11, a task we never asked for or could have even imagined that day. It is a challenge that has only been made more intractable by the mistakes, great and small, that followed. Ultimately, it is up to us to confront the only question that matters: will we be smaller, meaner people or a more cruel and vengeful nation because of that day? Or can we wipe away the smoke and dust of September to emerge with wiser and kinder hearts, as something better than we were before?
Maybe it is too late to answer that question, or to give a different answer. Maybe it is too late to define our childhood or adolescence as anything other than the Age of Terror. But ten or twenty years from now, we may be standing at the front of a classroom, telling our children a story, or mentoring a new employee—and they will not remember. They will ask us where we were, what we were doing, how we felt, what it was like. When we return to Claremont for our fiftieth reunions, we may be the only ones to remember, even if that memory is hazy and incomplete.
However much September 11 changed our lives, as adults we now have the freedom—and the responsibility—to decide who we are. The Twin Towers stood ten years ago. We stand taller than Ground Zero today.