Last month, 13 U.S. service members died in a terrorist attack at Kabul Airport as America ended its nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan. One of the things that stood out about the tragedy was the age of the victims, particularly how young they were.
Five of them were only 20 years old. And of the remaining eight, only one was older than 25.
These service members paid the ultimate price for a conflict that started when they were in diapers. They were young men and women who suffered the consequences of a world they largely had no hand in creating.
Their deaths were a stark reminder of how deep the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, run. It’s a day that has had, and continues to have, an immeasurable impact on the world, from wars to air travel to politics and more. Some have noted that it may be more accurate to think of 9/11 as an era rather than a single day.
As we reach the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, a new generation of Americans are speaking up about their experience living in a post-9/11 world — Generation Z, defined by those born after 1996. Though they can’t recall where they were when the second tower was hit or reminisce about the innocence of pre-9/11 days, Generation Z does have thoughts about the America they inherited.
The Post-9/11 Generation
Julia Heming doesn’t remember how old she was when she first heard about 9/11. It’s an event that has always existed in her mind.
Heming, a 19-year-old sophomore at Stony Brook University, is from Hampton Bays, New York, a small town on Long Island, about an hour outside New York City.
Her father was in the naval reserves at Fort Schuyler, located in the Bronx, on Sept. 11, 2001. He responded to Ground Zero that fateful day. However, he didn’t talk about it much in the years after. It wasn’t a memory he liked to relive.
“I’ve watched documentaries and things, but I learned most of what I know about that day from visiting the museum at the World Trade Center,” Heming said. “I went with a club from high school, it was the first time I ever really got to look at everything and the impact of it all, and I cried.”
Like Heming, Noah Ford, a 21-year-old junior at Creighton University, doesn’t remember when he became aware of 9/11.
Ford, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, said the first 9/11-related event he remembers taking notice of was the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“He was this bad guy, this evil guy that I had heard about for so long. So much so, I remember playing different games like hide-and-go-seek with neighbors as a young kid, and we would call the bad guy in our game ‘Osama,’” Ford said. “It’s kinda problematic now, but that’s how much we heard about him and how bad he was when I was a kid.”
In Heming, Ford and most of Generation Z’s case, they don’t hold the same emotional attachment to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as the older generations. They didn’t witness the visceral images or experience the raw feelings of that day.
To them, 9/11 is less of a day and more of an idea. It’s an indicator of why so many things in life are the way they are.
“I watch older movies or TV shows, and I’ll see a scene where someone runs up to a gate at an airport and professes their love to someone,” Heming said. “And they didn’t have to go through the TSA or anything.
“I see that and I just think about how that doesn’t happen anymore because of 9/11,” Heming said. “I never experienced what it was like to go straight to the gate, to smoke on an airplane, not to have to go through a ton of security. That’s always been my reality.”
But it’s not just the obvious example of airport security which Heming thinks about. She also wonders what it would be like to live in a world where you’re not being tracked 24/7.
Heming pointed to the Patriot Act, a law signed by former President George W. Bush in the wake of the terrorist attacks, which, in the name of national security, drastically increased federal law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities and emphasized counter-terrorism efforts.
“I think that law is the perfect example of the shift in America’s mindset after 9/11, that lack of trust not only in other countries but in our own people,” Heming said. “I don’t know a world where the (National Security Administration) doesn’t monitor your movements, whether online or in other ways.”
Heming said she understands why so many Americans at the time supported a law like the Patriot Act, but added that, nonetheless, 9/11 permanently distorted our perception of privacy.
“The way I view privacy is very different from how someone older than me views it. I don’t know what real privacy feels like; it's never really existed for me,” Heming said.
Ford, who grew up in a very conservative, midwestern household, said he had to unlearn many beliefs and narratives fed to him at a young age. It wasn’t until more recently he started doing his research and forming his own opinions on the fallout of 9/11.
“It’s been a very dramatic shift in my beliefs, mostly within the past few years,” Ford said.
He said his most striking change of opinion is his view on war. He considers himself anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist, opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think a lot of the perception of 9/11 and the wars has led to the dehumanization of other people, and I find that very dark and depressing,” Ford said. “We’ve continued these endless wars, and it just feels like so many people continue to use the cover of a national tragedy to justify these power grabs for oil and influence.”
The events of 9/11, and subsequently the wars in the Middle East, also produced the rapid spread of Islamophobia in America, Ford added.
Emily King, a 21-year-old junior at Emerson College in Boston, said that she believes Islamophobia is one of the more evident negative consequences to come out of the response to 9/11.
“Unfortunately, I think that some people in America don’t view Muslims and people in the Middle East for who they actually are,” King, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, said. “I think beliefs have been passed down, and I think it’s led to people to misunderstand the religion and the people.”
Despite all the negatives, King, who is organizing Emerson’s annual 9/11 vigil this year, said that she believes there are still opportunities to turn the darkness of that day into light.
“It’s incredibly important to honor the people that we lost,” King said. “Remembering the day gives people the opportunity to grieve still, it gives them the opportunity to find support in others, and I think it brings us closer together.
“There’s a lot of division in our country, and we have put up these barriers,” King said. “Any time we can break those barriers, I think it’s good.”
The Digital Generation
Another aspect that defines Generation Z is its relationship to technology. Having been born either right before or after 9/11, most of them only know a world of 24-hour news cycles, social media and smartphones.
Ford said that growing up with an overload of information at his fingertips has made him skeptical of what he reads and hears. He said he thinks many from his generation feel the same way.
He added that he never settles on just one source for his news. He uses multiple platforms, like Twitter, YouTube and print, to stay updated, and he always verifies information before coming to any conclusions.
“I think 9/11 really did have an impact on the media. It reinforced the 24-hour news cycle and it kind of created this state of constant breaking news and sensationalism on TV,” Ford said. “I respect journalism greatly, but when it’s done correctly.
“I don’t go to places like CNN or MSNBC too often because I don’t trust the incentives of cable television, building up stories for ratings,” Ford said. “I’d rather go to Twitter where I can find independent journalists whose intentions I can more trust.”
As for how today’s modern media landscape would have affected the coverage of Sept. 11, 2001, and the days after, Heming said she believes it would have made the situation a lot worse.
“Even now, there are a lot of conspiracy theories about 9/11, that it wasn’t a terrorist attack or it was an inside job, which I think is bogus,” Heming said. “It’s not a lot of people who believe these theories, but I think had social media existed when the towers fell, I think those kinds of conspiracies would have spread faster and wider.”
Heming pointed to the present state of politics and the news to showcase how social media has affected discourse in our country, using the 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic as prime examples.
“Just look at the news now, I think it’s clear that social media fuels this kind of thinking,” Heming said. “There are always people online who are going to give a different narrative, and blame the government and provoke things just for the sake of it, and people will follow.”
Heming went as far as to say that she is unsure whether the country would have actually survived the events of Sept. 11 had social media existed.
“I think the lack of social media, in some way, allowed the country to be unified because everyone watched the same thing, they saw the towers fall on their morning or evening news, they heard the stories about the first responders,” Heming said.
“With social media, there would have been a lot more misinformation and lies that spread, it would have made things dangerous, and I think the country wouldn’t have survived the attacks had we not unified.”