Ready to feel old? This year’s high school freshmen will be the first crop of ninth-graders in history to learn about 9/11 as an event that transpired before their lifetime.
Granted, old fogies like you and me can never forget the terror of that Tuesday morning in 2001. Indeed, the images of the day – the people leaping out of the towers to their demises, the billowing, cancerous fog exploding into the New York sky as the buildings crumbled, the firefighters and policemen covered in toxic sut – are burned into our retinas, no matter how much we try to forget them.
But to today’s 14-year-old, what does all of that mean – if anything? How in the hell can they possibly grasp what life was like “pre-9/11,” and how the very fabric of American life changed over the course of ten minutes?
I suppose it’s like when we watch footage of World War II – the corpses floating in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese with their irradiated skin burned off in Hiroshima, the mass graves in Poland. We know what we’re looking at when we see the shivering, skeletal remnants of Auschwitz survivors and the half-starved Russian troops with the gaze of inescapable trauma forever tattooed on their eyes, but it didn’t happen to us. Yes, all of this was important and changed the trajectory of mankind as we know it, but it was just so long ago – what happened in Manchuria and the East Indies and Stalingrad and Dresden 75 years ago might as well have happened 200, 300 or 500 years earlier. Try as we may, we just can’t relate to what happened.
As strange as it may seem to us, every graduating high school class from here on out will feel equally disconnected from 9/11. They will never know it as something that happened to them, they will only know it as a collection of images and grainy, pre-Facebook television clips. Instead of seeing it as the line separating the past from the new modernity, it will be just another event in the pantheon of things that happened before they existed.
What the under-18 crowd “knows” about 9/11, fundamentally, is its after-effects on the only sort of historical antecedent they share as a collective: popular culture. To us, the great after-effect of 9/11 was that sudden realization that national security wasn’t the great protector we thought it was, that perhaps indefinitely, Western Civilization as we know it was to be gripped in asymmetrical war with a borderless adversary driven by an anti-modernist ideology. In short, after years of feeling nigh-invincible in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, we suddenly, dramatically, got reacquainted with the notion of “vulnerability.”
But the great residual effect of 9/11, if you aren’t old enough to vote or buy cigarettes at the moment? “Murica.”
Yes, that’s what 9/11 means to today’s kids. Not terror. Not tragedy. Not the loss of safety. It means “that weird point in time before social media where everybody liked Chuck Norris.” To them, 9/11 is nothing more than the origin point of all sorts of kitschy, quasi-patriotic ephemera – the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, American Idol, the Call of Duty video games, the entirety of puppeteer Jeff Dunham’s career. What we reflect back on as modernity’s point-of-no-return, they can only see as the needless catalyst for why their uncle with a mullet got a bald eagle tattoo or why there are so many videos on YouTube from 2006 with Drowning Pool playing over static images of U.S. soldiers and military equipment.
To them, 9/11 and the Iraq War blur together (let’s call it the “W diplomacy syndrome.”) Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are just two interchangeable dead guys from the Middle East. Air travel in the United States has always been a skein of bureaucratic ineptness and counterproductive “safety procedures.” To them, the “War on Terror” and “The PATRIOT Act” are nothing more than abstract buzzwords, cultural leftovers on par with the music of Andrew W.K. and those old Geico cavemen commercials. Try as they may, they’ll never perceive 9/11 as anything more than something that happened concurrently with the Nintendo Gamecube and Vanilla-flavored Coca-Cola.
Yes, they will interpret 9/11 is an extraordinarily significant event, but they are forever destined to feel detached from it and unimpacted by it. When they watch the jets explode on impact with the World Trade Center, they feel pretty much the same thing when they watch footage of Halo 2 or a Larry the Cable Guy routine. “It’s just the past,” they all think aloud. “And I just don’t get it.”
For a 15-year-old in America today, just how much does 9/11 reverberate throughout their lives, anyway? Are we to expect them to flip through the Wall Street Journal and see the tenuous links between the rise of ISIS, the fall of Syria and the disastrous “liberation” of Iraq as direct consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks? Do they gaze at the school resource officer in their cafeteria and the traffic light cameras in their neighborhoods and the smartphone apps that literally observe their every move as the collateral effects of 9/11? Do they reflect on every international treaty, every free trade agreement and every WMD accord through the lens of 9/11, that crucial reminder of just how bad things can get, or do they merely see 9/11 as that convenient excuse for right-wingers to despise Muslims, and – irony of ironies – the start of Islamophobia as a cultural doctrine?
No, to them, 9/11 was just another “thing.” They’re not ignorant, mind you, just being honest – they have no formal emotional connection to the tragedy, and you have to give them a little bit of respect for having the forthrightness to avoid feigning any syrupy, synthetic sentiments.
History is a funny thing. For our parents, there was nothing bigger than the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their entire lives were defined by the Cold War, and watching that slab of concrete crumble in Hasselhoff territory was both figuratively and literally the series finale of their culture’s most epic real-life drama. But for us? We have no recollections of the great Soviet Menace. Detente and the S.A.L.T. talks and Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense network are little more than Trivial Pursuit fodder. Mom and dad spent half their lives enmeshed in a global order where the threat of nuclear extinction was literally a 50/50 possibility, but when was the last time you and I even thought about the world’s stockade of atomic weaponry?
Well, it’s the same deal with Gen Z. They can read in textbooks and buttonhole some elders on the subject, but since they didn’t live through the times themselves, they will never truly grasp the severity and the significance of 9/11.
And in that, there lies a very real challenge, and mayhap even a grave threat to U.S. society itself. Go on, crack open another browser, click your way to YouTube and type “9/11” in the search box. The very first video I saw – the very first one listed on the biggest news event of the 21st century – was titled “JAW DROPPING – NEW 9/11 FOOTAGE DESTROYS MAIN STREAM NARRATIVE.”
Among the most viewed 9/11 clips on YouTube? The second most-watched 9/11 related video, with nearly 30 million views, promises to “let every one know the hidden truths” of the tragedy. A video titled “100% WTC Drone Attack/Strike Plane PROOF (Many Witnesses)” and “Believe Your Own Eyes – 9/11 – No ‘Planes’ Were Ever Used” each are closing in on 10 million views – and both have substantially more hits than any 9/11 retrospectives or historical footage from any of the network or cable news heavyweights. A conspiracy video titled “9/11 Pentagon Attack: A Closer Look” has amassed more than 8 million hits – first published 10 years ago, not only is it one of the oldest 9/11 related videos still on YouTube, it was one of the first videos ever published on the user-generated media platform.
This is where far, far, FAR more kids are getting their “information” on 9/11 than we would ever care to acknowledge. With many school districts and even colleges hesitant to bring such a contentious issue into their curriculum (indeed, reports reveal that some of the most illustrious universities in America no longer require American history as a prerequisite, even for history majors), an entire generation is growing up fully believing that 9/11 was “an inside job” perpetrated by the Bush Administration or international financial institutions. Rather than accept that 9/11 was the doing of an aggrieved cult of ideologically-obsessed pseudo-commandos half a world away, our middle and high schools are pooping out scores of youths convinced Sept. 11 – if they subscribe to a hard-right ethos – was the handiwork of Jewish banking bigwigs or – if they subscribe to a hard-left ethos – was the doing of a racist, patriarchal federal government trying to institute a new form of slavery under the guise of a “national emergency.” God help us, there are even kids out there who believe – honestly, genuinely, unironically – that Sept. 11 was a false flag event orchestrated by subterranean “lizard people” like in that old TV show V. You would be aghast – aghast, I say – just how many teens out there believe no one at all died on 9/11, and that the whole thing was some elaborate ruse to bring about some nondescript Orwellian nightmare (whose final form, of course, depends on how far right or how far left of the spectrum you prefer your politics.)
Those who forget history, the old platitude goes, are destined to repeat it. In this case, the updated maxim is “those who rewrite history are destined to defeat it.” While such fringe, cockamamie conspiracy theories about 9/11 – themselves, trojan horses for a whole host of inherently prejudicial, bigoted and fundamentally insane philosophies – will (hopefully) never become “mainstream,” a great many young people (seriously, you would not believe how many I’m talking about here) do indeed embrace the far-out hypotheses proposed by cranks, dingbats and crackpots like Alex Jones and the producers of propumentary films Zeitgeist and Loose Change as the “real story” behind 9/11.
And of course, if you’re going to buy into one lunatic fringe ideology, you might as well do all your shopping at Camp Crazy. Of course the Sandy Hook massacre was a false flag operation intended to take all our guns away! The U.N. wants to move everybody into cities so they can open up concentration camps in Kansas! The Black Lives Matter crowd are secretly communists hired by George Soros to bring about martial law! Obama uses DARPA missiles to control the weather! Vaccinations cause autism! No, chemtrails cause autism! No, the American Psychiatric Association made up autism as an excuse to lock up dissidents in underground black site prisons!
That, eventually, becomes their entire worldview. They believe nothing anyone tells them, except for their wonky demigod cult of personalities on the Internet. They discredit all historical knowledge (all the records are fake, you know – especially all that science fiction about a supposed “Holocaust”), all tenets of scientific knowledge (lest we forget, that guy who once rapped alongside that chick from Paramore thinks the world is 180 degrees flat), and discredit any acknowledgement of the social realities before them (girls don’t talk to me because I’m weird and smell like Tater Tots, they don’t talk to me because it’s an international conspiracy to depopulate the planet!)
Yeah, that may seem like a stretch, but trust me, these people are out there (in more ways than one, obviously.) And for them – our future doctors and engineers and straight out of high school disability recipients, remember – 9/11 doesn’t mean a galvanizing tragedy that, as heard in many a country song from the early 2000s, temporarily united a nation as one. Nor to them does it represent the arrival of a great alien menace and a counter-ideology to democratic capitalism, like communism in the 20th century, that threatens to spread like wildfire across the globe. Instead, 9/11 represents the disembodied concept that steered them away from positive social bonds and into the clutches of opportunistic online snake oil salesmen. It’s the “thing” that made them distrust any and all authoritative voices – government, military, business, academia, the media, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and their own families. It’s the event that got them to buy into a nihilistic Tao that casts everything as the demonic doings of some unstoppable, invisible global empire culpable for literally every bad thing that happens in the world. It’s the event, ultimately, that introduced them to a self-destructive religion that frees them from any sort of personal responsibility and cocoons them in a sadsack, misanthropic (world wide) web of fear and loathing.
Patriotism? Heroism? Self-sacrifice? Nay, to an ever-growing throng of children, teens and tweens, 9/11 represents none of those. Instead, 9/11 is the date they stopped believing in reality as we know it, eschewing the actual for a fanciful, fan-fiction life untainted by unwanted guests like “facts” and “documented truths.” Where we see tragedy and triumph, they see only kitsch and deception.
You see, folks, that’s what happens when you don’t tell your kids vital truths about the world because you think things are “too heavy” or “too complicated.” That’s what happens when school systems refuse to go over important world events because the discussions are “too problematic” and “likely to offend someone.” That’s what happens, essentially, when we as a culture forget our greatest moments of darkness, which almost always contain crystals of our greatest moments of human compassion as well.
At one point in time, didn’t we all make a promise to “never forget?” Well, because of our broken oaths, it looks like the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 are something the next generation is destined to never remember.