We Now Have Adults Who Don’t Understand September 11

Twin Towers Memorial in NYC at night
Photo by Jason McCann on Unsplash

Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?

If you’re between about 30 and 80 years of age, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania are the seminal world history moment in your life.

Not since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor has the United States been attacked with significant loss of life on its own soil. Not since then has the nation been so thoroughly shaken.

And even more than Pearl Harbor, the attacks on September 11, 2001 have shaped American life since. U.S. involvement in WWII was over four years later, but the war against terrorism continues today. As you read this, the U.S. government is negotiating to extract troops from Afghanistan, the safe haven from which the 9/11 terrorists operated. Troops rolled into that mountainous nation 17 years ago, in what has amounted to America’s longest war by far.

You know where you were that day. You can remember when you first heard about it, what you saw, your horror and pain. It’s with us every day.

But what about those young adults – college students and graduate students – too young to remember? What does Sept. 11 mean to them? Could it be that the defining moment in recent American history is lost on a massive segment of our population so soon?

Amazingly, the answer is largely, yes. Even students in their later 20s remember the date for its effect on their young lives more than for its global impact, the socio-political effects, or even the loss of innocent life.

Megan Llewellyn is a 26-year-old returning student at College of Charleston who was living in New Jersey at the time. Her memory centers on crying parents and children being removed from her third grade class. “It was really scary,” she said.

Mark Donohue, a 21-year-old junior at CofC from the Finger Lakes region of New York State, has a similar reaction. Prior to Sept. 11 his mother was offered a job that would have placed her on an upper floor of the second tower. But she didn’t want to move her family to the city, and so she declined. That was the main connection for him until he began reading about the attacks in high school.

For Shannon Murray, a CofC junior from Lexington, SC, the date means something else entirely. Her younger sister was born on September 11, 2001, when Shannon was three-years old. As for the terror of that day, “it feels like ancient history. I’m disconnected from it,” she admits. It took a visit to the 9/11 Museum in New York for Murray to understand the power of that day’s event, much like newsreel footage of World War II did for Baby Boomers.

Still, the aftereffects of Sept. 11 linger, particularly when we fly or enter a public facility. Today’s students shrug when asked about that. It’s just the way things are.

American distrust of Muslims – even American Muslims – was accentuated by the attacks, which were planned and executed entirely by radical Islamists. Those feelings have been stirred up again by comments from the Commander in Chief.

Nonetheless, a 2017 survey of attitudes by the Pew Research Center found young people – 18-29, or those who were between two and 13 in 2001 – have significantly warmer feelings towards Muslims than older cohorts do. Their feelings towards Muslims were on par with their feelings towards mainline Protestants, Evangelical Christians and Atheists, and 32% more positive than those of Americans 65+.  

In other words, the aftermath of the worst single act of terrorism in world history doesn’t seem to affect the attitudes of young adults towards the religious group to which the perpetrators were attached.

Grey Arnau, a College of Charleston student from McClellanville, says she is frustrated by the airport lines caused by the security measures resulting from 9/11, but feels tremendous empathy for those who died. She has consumed dozens of videos from that day’s event. “It really affects me,” she said. But she acknowledges that she is unusual among her friends in that regard.

If it feels unimaginable that a generation that is now adults has no understanding of September 11, consider that it’s not just them. It was a moment in time. Life goes on. 

Donohue, who could have lost his mother that day, says the flame wasn’t kept alive in his family. “My parents never talked about it,” he said.