September 11, 2009 | By Claudia Kalb
Bryan Gamez was in the middle of a writing exercise in his fifth-grade classroom in Rockville, Md., when his principal's voice suddenly boomed over the PA system to announce that school would be closing early that day. His teacher turned on the television just as news of the attacks on the World Trade Center erupted. It was impossible to comprehend. "They were saying 'terrorists,' but we thought they were saying 'tourists,' " says Gamez. "My teacher was freaking out. We were just all confused." Gamez was 10 years old at the time, and the sights and sounds of September 11, 2001, have stuck vividly in his young mind: smoke billowing from the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, people jumping from their offices, bodies covered in ash. "Just a lot of screams and a lot of tears," he says. "I was in shock."
Ten is a formative age—not yet a teenager, no longer a little kid. Becoming independent, but still deeply attached to family. Aware of the world, but not yet cognizant of how it works. The events of 9/11 destroyed a sense of security for this cohort of children. Born as the Cold War ended, they grew up in a decade that saw massive economic growth, the dawning of the World Wide Web and a culture riddled with cynicism. Members of the "Millennial" Generation—born between 1982 and about 2004—they tend to be sheltered, close to their parents, and confident, says Neil Howe, who with William Strauss wrote Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. The attacks brought terror to their doorsteps: "9/11 was the beginning of a new fear in America about chaos and uncontrolled disorder in the world," says Howe. Children saw their teachers and parents worried and, in some cases, emotionally wrecked. They watched police officers and firefighters—community protectors—dying in piles of rubble. They got caught up in a collective sense of national dread: what next? And that was a question nobody, not even the highest officials in the country, could answer. Now, as the United States marks the eighth anniversary of 9/11, these children are turning 18 and entering adulthood, and they offer a unique glimpse into the mindset of a group of Americans coming of age under the shadow of terrorism.
Of course, children have always lived through the challenges and horrors of history. In the last 50 years alone, young people witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the killings in Vietnam, the Challenger disaster, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the shootings at Columbine, to name just a few. Many of these events were defining moments for them, changing their lives in some fundamental way. While it's too soon to say definitively what the long-term impact of 9/11 will be—experts are still studying the historical and psychological fallout of Hiroshima, decades later—the attacks did present a new paradigm: an enemy who would use a plane filled with civilians as ammunition, a foe who could potentially live undercover in any city and kill at any moment. And we all—adults and 10-year-olds alike—were potential targets. The immediate impact of 9/11 was shock, fear, confusion. The attacks heightened awareness of global events for a generation of kids, shattered their illusions of a peaceful world, and changed perceptions they had of their nation as almighty and invulnerable. Daniel Young, who was in his fifth-grade social-studies class in Charlottesville, Va., that September morning, says he quickly learned an enduring lesson: "We found out that the United States isn't invincible."
Unlike the Baby Boomers, whose big fear was that "we'd all live in ticky-tacky houses," says Howe, Millennials fear that "strange people with motives we don't understand could be lurking among us." The Boomers feared conformity; Millennials crave order. Like other historical events, 9/11 was a pivotal moment for this generation, clarifying for some their life's mission and purpose. Indeed, a recent survey of college students found that they include the government and groups like the Peace Corps and Teach for America among the top 10 places they'd like to work. Before 9/11, for-profit corporations dominated students' top choices. "I think that has an interesting 9/11 echo," says Howe, who believes the attacks and other turbulent events, including the invasion of Iraq, prompted young people to want to bring back a sense of control in the world. In 2004, Patricia Somers of the University of Texas at Austin and several colleagues conducted interviews with 50 college students at five academic institutions. They found that 9/11 had no direct effect on the career choices of 80 percent of the group. But a small number of these older Millennials did report a shift in their academic plans. One student changed his major from prelaw to microbiology so he could "help with bioterrorism." Whether any of their younger brothers or sisters, who are just now starting college, will follow suit remains to be seen.
No event, no matter how cataclysmic, will have the same effect on everyone. The attacks of 9/11 forced young Americans into a crash course in world politics, terrorism, and Islam, but they interpreted those lessons differently. Jared Radin's uncle Paul Friedman died on American Airlines Flight 11. Soon thereafter, Radin lost the political enthusiasm he had begun to develop during the 2000 election. September 11 "made me a little hopeless and apathetic and cynical about world affairs," he says. Radin, now a sophomore at Wesleyan University and reinvigorated by current events, remembers entering what he calls an "insular period," without much care for what was going on; life felt grim. Alternately, Zach Laychak, whose father, David, was killed in the Pentagon attack, found himself more politically engaged, becoming quicker to defend his country. "It made me more patriotic and American," says Laychak, a high-school senior in Oakton, Va. Laychak, who wears a bracelet with his father's name on it, says he began to realize that war may sometimes be necessary to "maintain our American way of life."
The scale and unpredictability of 9/11 had immediate and lingering effects on the emotional lives of children, especially those who suffered a personal loss. It was horrific for any of us to watch the attacks on television, and far more so for kids who found out that a loved one was one of the victims. Grace Christ, a professor of social work at Columbia University, studied families of firefighters who were killed and says children in the 8-to-11 age range had a particularly difficult time navigating what had happened. They weren't old enough to fully grasp the big picture the way adolescents can, she says. At that age, children need details and concrete information in order to feel a sense of control. But the details of 9/11 were gruesome, making the event frightening and almost impossible to comprehend. "They were overwhelmed by the suddenness and catastrophic nature," she says. "They had a lot of anxiety and a lot of feeling out of control."
Lauren Eddens, who was 10 at the time of the attacks, is an example of this. Her uncle Chris Quackenbush died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. The two were close, and she can still recall the silly face he used to make, squishing up his nose and squinting his eyes. All she remembers of the day of the attacks is clutching a Cat in the Hat doll that her uncle had bought her. A year after 9/11, Lauren stopped eating and was eventually diagnosed with anorexia. "I think it was because the control was taken away," she says—from the adults around her and from her own life, too. The attacks weren't the sole cause of her eating disorder, she says, but they were one of a number of triggers. Today a freshman at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Eddens is on the path to recovery, which she says is what her uncle would want. "He just really wouldn't want [me] to be upset over what happened, and I've learned to deal with that," she says.
For children who were not directly affected, the impact of 9/11 may have had less long-term resonance, but some of the emotional effects still linger. It was historic, and it was scary, even though it was a long time ago. Robin Goodman, a psychologist in New York City, says she asks all the young people she counsels about where they were and what happened to them on that day. "It will still come up as a defining moment," she says, as kids discuss their memories and their fears. Sometimes Goodman discovers that the issues her young patients are struggling with are linked to the attacks. "I realize there's something related to 9/11 that went under the radar that's now related to a current problem [they have]," she says. Sam Hopkins, a freshman at Reed College with an interest in literature and politics, says he remembers 2001 being a year "full of fear." First there was 9/11, then the anthrax attacks. "I can tell you that I don't remember crying a lot as a kid, and I think I cried a lot on September 11," he says. Hopkins doesn't take 9/11 particularly personally today—he doesn't want to change the world by joining the Peace Corps or the military—but he does want to understand why people act the way they do. He's been looking for answers in literature, and he finds that contemporary novels that tackle world issues (works written by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example) feel more relevant to him than classics such as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Hopkins says he still thinks about his safety often, but he recognizes the perils of anxiety. "If we're too obsessed with fear, we become paranoid or racist," he says. "Every generation has things to be afraid of, but I think we have to be realistic about it too."
The impact of 9/11 on this group of young Americans will no doubt play out for years to come. Olivine Garcia, a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes the attacks were a pivotal moment for her and her peers, and that after that day, life changed for all of them, even if they're not sure how. Like others who didn't lose a relative in the attacks, Garcia hasn't spent much time recently reflecting on the events of that day or its aftermath. Life moves on. Even Bryan Gamez says he's not sure how great the overall effect is. He's thinking about joining the Peace Corps, but says he feels compelled by natural disasters like the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina more than terrorism. And he's inspired by the humanitarian work of Angelina Jolie. Daniel Young describes the attacks as "a little bit of a shadow"; he's not living in a state of constant fear, and his career interests, social work or the ministry, aren't linked to 9/11, he says. Still, "it's sort of always in the back of your head."
And it will likely stay there, somewhere, forever.