It is eight years since 9/11, and here is an unexpected stage of grief: fear that the ache will go away. I don’t suppose it ever will, but grieving has gradations, and “horror” becomes “absorbed sadness.” Life moves on, and wants to move on, which is painful for those who will not forget and cannot be comforted. Part of the spookiness of life, part of its power to disorient us, is not only that people die, that they slip below the waves, but that the waves close above them so quickly, the sea so quickly looks the same.
I’ve been thinking about those who were children on 9/11, not little ones who were shielded but those who were 10 and 12, old enough to understand that something dreadful had happened but young enough still to be in childhood. A young man who was 14 the day of the attacks told me recently that there’s an unspoken taboo among the young people of New York: They don’t talk about it, ever. They don’t want to say, “Oh boo hoo, it was awful.” They don’t want to dwell. They shrug it off when it comes up. They change the subject.
This week, in a conversation with college students at an eastern university, I brought it up. Seven students politely shared some of their memories. I invited them to tell me more the next morning, and was surprised when six of the seven showed up. This is what I learned:
They’ve been marked by 9/11 more than they know. It was their first moment of historical consciousness. Before that day, they didn’t know what history was; after that day, they knew they were in it.
It was a life-splitting event. Before it they were carefree, after they were careful. A 20-year-old junior told me that after 9/11, “a backpack on a subway was no longer a backpack,” and a crowded theater was “a source for concern.” Every one of them used the word “bubble”: the protected bubble of their childhood “popped.” And all of them said they spent 9/11 and the days after glued to the television, watching over and over again the footage—the north tower being hit by the plane, the fireball. The video of 9/11 has firmly and ineradicably entered their brains. Which is to say their first visual memory of America, or their first media memory, was of its towers falling down.
I’d never fully realized this: 9/11 was for America’s kids exactly what Nov. 22, 1963, was for their parents and uncles and aunts. They were at school. Suddenly there were rumors in the hall and teachers speaking in hushed tones. You passed an open classroom and saw a teacher sobbing. Then the principal came on the public-address system and said something very bad had happened. Shocked parents began to pick kids up. Everyone went home and watched TV all day, and the next.
* * *
Simon, a 20-year-old college junior, was a 12-year-old seventh-grader at a public school in Baltimore. He said: “It’s first-period science, and the teacher next door, who was known to play jokes on other teachers, comes in completely stone-faced and says a plane has hit the World Trade Center, and no one believes him.” Simon didn’t know what to believe but remembered reading that in 1945 a plane had struck the Empire State Building, and “the building stayed up,” so he didn’t worry too much.
“At lunch time the vice principal comes up and he explains that two planes had hit the World Trade Center and one had hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was gone, and I never—when you have your mouth agape it’s never for anything important, but I remember having my mouth agape for a minute or two in complete and utter shock. I went to my art period and I remember my art teacher sitting there with her hands on her face just bawling, she was so frightened. My mom picked me up, and I remember walking with her, and I’m saying ‘This is Pearl Harbor.’”
Nine-eleven, he felt, changed everything for his generation. “It completely destroyed our sense of invincibility—maybe that’s not the right word. I would say it made everything real to a 12-year-old. It showed the world could be a dangerous place when for my generation that was never the case. My generation had no Soviet Union, no war against fascism, we never had any threats. I was born when the Berlin Wall came down. It destroyed the sense of carefree innocence that we had.”
* * *
Juliette, also 20 and a junior, was in eighth grade in Great Falls, Va. “I think the kids were shocked,” she said. “The major question was how could this happen, who would do that—like, how does something so crazy happen? What I had is a sense that it was going to be one of those days of which 30 years down the road, people would ask me, What were you doing on that day, where were you on 9/11?—that my children would ask me. And so I set myself to remembering the details.”
I told her that it is interesting to me that no great art has yet come from 9/11. The reason may be that adults absorbed what had happened, and because we had absorbed it, we did not have to transmute it into art. Maybe when you are still absorbing, or cannot absorb, that’s when art happens. Maybe your generation will do it, I said.
She considered this. “There’s always the odds that something much more horrible will happen that will really shake us out of our torpor, that will wake us up,” she said.
* * *
The attack was not only an American event. Robbie, an 18-year-old freshman, was 10 and in primary school in England. “We were near the end of school. There were murmurs from teachers about something happening. I remember going back home, and my mum had both televisions on with different news channels. I remember the tower and the pillar of smoke. The big pillar of smoke was very vivid to me, and my mother trying to explain the seriousness of it. I think 9/11 brought us bang slap into the 21st century. I remember when the millennium came people said ‘new time, new world,’ but 9/11 was the ‘new time, new world.’ I understood it was something big, something that changed the world.”
Then he told me that after we had talked the previous evening, he’d had a dream. “I was back in my old school in England, and in front of me I could see the city of Bristol, nothing distinct, but big towers, big buildings. And I could see them crumbling and falling. There was a collective fear, not just from myself but amongst everyone in the dream. I remember calling in the dream my mum, and saying ‘Are you safe, are you safe?’ I think this perhaps shows that after 9/11 . . . as a small child you felt safe, but after 9/11, I don’t think I personally will ever feel 100% safe. . . . I think the dream demonstrates—I think the dream contained my hidden feelings, my consciousness.”
He remembered after 9/11 those who rose up to fight terrorism. Even as a child he was moved by them. There are always in history so many such people, he said. It is always the great reason for hope.