A world shaped by the 9/11 attacks
At the start of every fall semester since 1998, Beloit College in Wisconsin has put out what it calls a “Mindset List,” outlining the cultural touchstones of its incoming freshman class. It offers some illumination on their worldview and, along the way, makes everyone whose freshman year in college is several miles in the rearview mirror feel a little bit elderly.
They point out this year’s freshmen, born in 1995, have never known Jerry Garcia or Dean Martin as anything other than dead celebrities, watched “Chicken Run” as children but never caught chicken pox, have strong memories of only two presidencies and don’t think of a tablet as just something you swallow in the morning.
It’s not mentioned on the Beloit list, but this year’s college freshmen were 6 years old when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred.
That means they were just beginning first grade 12 years ago today when the two towers of the World Trade Center tumbled, a portion of the Pentagon was destroyed and United Airlines Flight 93 nose-dived into a field in Somerset County thanks to the self-sacrifice of passengers who realized the plane’s hijackers were flying the plane toward Washington, D.C., where they hoped to wreak more havoc and mayhem.
Their memory for the details of that day might not be all that vivid – that would be like asking someone born in 1957 to recall the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, or someone born in 1935 to serve up their memories of Pearl Harbor in 1941 – but the bulk of their lives and the world around them have been indelibly shaped by the events of that morning and their aftermath.
Consider, to those just reaching adulthood, interminable lines, pat-down searches and shoe removal in airports are facts of life to be endured. They almost certainly can’t recall the more freewheeling days when quickly tossing a bag or two through a metal detector was the norm and you could get to the airport an hour or less before you were airborne without too much problem.
They also live in a less private, more intrusive world. Granted, today’s college freshmen are part of a generation that has surrendered any shred of solitude with glee, posting their thoughts and outlining their daily activities on Facebook or Twitter and posting videos to YouTube. And the cell phones they carry and the GPS devices they use can trace where they are from moment to moment. But the National Security Agency could well be looking at the pattern of their email exchanges and Facebook posts to determine if there is anything untoward about them. Under the Patriot Act, their library records could be subject to a subpoena.
Unfortunately, our outsized surveillance apparatus didn’t detect the plans of the Tsarnaev brothers before they planted a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April. Their horrific deed demonstrated how, in the years since 9/11, small-time terrorism carried out by independent malcontents has become a greater concern than large-scale, 9/11-style attacks. The surviving Tsarnaev brother, Dzhokhar, just a few years older than this year’s college freshmen, is now confined to a federal facility near Boston, likely never to take a breath as a free man again.
In the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks, it was often uttered in shock and disbelief that the world had changed and things would never be the same. There was truth in that, although, in some ways, it was overstated in the immediate swirl of emotions.
For today’s freshly minted adults, it has not been a changed world but the world they have always known.