Sept. 11, 2001: Looking back on a generation’s loss of certainty
By Michael Newberger | email@example.com
My day started like any goofy middle schooler. I put on my jean shorts, applied a liberal amount of hair gel to perfect the “spiked flip” look, and got in my mother’s mini-van to go to school. It was Sept. 11, 2001, and I was 11 years old.
The first sign anything was amiss came at my locker. Some kid came up and said a plane had struck the World Trade Center. No one believed him. We thought maybe a small Cessna could have crashed into the towers.
Then our teachers solemnly brought us into the classrooms to watch the scene unfold on TV.
One of the first things I remember about the terrorist attacks is how visibly shaken the usual stalwarts of television news were. Then, as we watched the flames from the first tower, the second plane hit. I don’t even know how to describe the reaction without swearing. To this day it is still the most shocking, the most unbelievable image I’ve ever seen. It’s like a movie, only real. Hundreds of people had died in front of my eyes. Several students screamed.
There was no more chatter — no more speculation of what had happened. The entire school had gone quiet as all of these 10- to 14-year-olds tried to grasp what was going on.
As quietly as middle-schoolers will ever be, we filed into the lunchroom to hear the principal speak. I barely remember any of what she said. Instead, what sticks out to me was the incessant drone of the leaf-blower outside as the custodian tried to do his job. He looked in a state of disbelief while standing with the back-mounted unit — just staring into nothingness.
The next three days I didn’t leave the house. We still didn’t know if this was an isolated incident or if the United States would continue to be attacked. Out of all the coverage that we watched, listened and read, what was the most surprising was the BBC coverage of other nations’ responses. The outpouring of sympathy from other countries and the surprise of world leaders struck me as an indication of how important the events were.
And I remember a greater sense of community and patriotism. In Lutz, where I’m from, my Boy Scout Troop joined the rest of the town in waving flags down Highway 41 after the tragedy. It was pouring rain and my flag blew into the middle of the road. I was almost hit by a car when I ran out to retrieve it.
Though it sounds overstated, that day for me was the true loss of innocence for my childhood. Gone was the naiveté of the post-Cold War peace that we thought we had achieved. Growing up in the ’90s, we were taught that democracy had won out. Aside from things like the Kosovo police action, I thought that no one would want to harm us. We were the good guys. Why would anyone hurt us?
As an 11-year-old kid who played too many computer games and watched war movies, I thought I knew what death and violence looked like. I thought death only happened in far away war zones, or with grandparents passing away. But I learned that fall morning that death and the fear of it had suddenly became very close. It wasn’t just an abstract idea anymore. It was something that could happen at any moment, while doing the things that we used to take for granted.
Ten years later, we killed the man who was responsible for perpetrating the attacks. While we all celebrated the end of a vile person, it seems somewhat hollow to me. Along with the lives lost on that day was the sense of certainty and safety that my generation had grown up with.