Looking back, now with Information Age lenses, 9/11’s aftermath lessons are full of virtues, yet to be capitalized.
When you are a child inside of history, you are still making sense of the welter of experience. Days are made up of hours, which contain sensation. To have been a kid in New York City on September 11th, 2001, in many cases, is to have first watched changes in teachers’ behavior, then to have been called into a baffling or circumspect assembly, then to have school end early. My elementary school was located in the Bronx, where my grandparents lived, so they picked me up, as well as some friends who slept over at their house that night. We sat in front of the TV, watching the news play and replay the same footage, and ate mac and cheese.
Twenty years later today, re-watching the episode of the Jon Stewart Show that I also watched as a 10 year old kid in 2001, I remember the host describing how children sat under their desks with the lights off and ate cottage cheese in Newark on the day MLK Jr. was assassinated. This was because there was rioting, but the kids couldn’t know or understand that. The comparison’s imperfect, but when each of us reached for a first memory of those world-historical days, we remembered what we ate, and the unusual physical places we ended up.
All that is to say: the incomprehensibility of days that live in history is forgivable in children, who still organize their understanding at least in part around getting out of class. To have grown up in the years following 2001 is to have come to a greater context, to have gathered information from sources including: the news, politicians, one’s parents and teachers, studies of history and religion in school, one’s peers, pop culture, and the internet, to name just a few. It’s to have left the room, to have analytically digested information, to determine what seemed more accurate, since it wasn’t always.
It can be tough to describe the culture of remembrance for people of my generation in the United States of America, well known for its large historical diversity. I believe to be an exception to the more general culture in many respects, which, for a large part, still takes on a nationalistic tenor that privilege memorializing the loss of American lives on both the day and in the conflicts that followed. But I can speak to one text I return to from my particular perspective as a progressive Jewish woman who grew up on the Upper West Side.
Days after the event, Susan Sontag described 9/11 in The New Yorker as “an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” She asked how many Americans were aware of the then-ongoing American bombing of Iraq and concluded, “‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again... Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”
To be so clear-eyed in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing tragedy takes an intellect and will I continue to aspire to attain. Countless other responses failed to achieve this altitude, this global view, placing the day in an international context of power relations and Western imperialism, and calling for a measured, not a strongman, response.
Despite not feeling myself to be an authority on my generation’s broader relationship to remembering the date and its consequences, I can speak to the experience of attempting to understand it over the years, and the role that the media and technology in particular has played.
Since we were also a generation that came of age with the internet, 9/11 is inextricable from that particular conduit of information and its transformative, warping effects. So much so, that early conspiracy theories tied to the attack remain lodged in my memory, from my adolescence. There are phrases that have become memes that I won’t repeat here, since the valences of humor and surreal absurdity seem especially wrong when contrasted with the gravity of the 20th anniversary and the serious project of remembrance, of confronting the after-effects. But they are attached - these ways of talking and thinking - and they may constitute a dimension of such events that often go under-discussed.
This incongruity and tension (that of the meme-ification of tragedy, and its coopting by conspiracy theorists) is acute to me - a person who worked as a reporter for a number of years for an online news site. From 2015 to 2019, my job involved, in part, sifting through and identifying fake news, scams, and hoaxes, all of which inevitably crop up around disasters and catastrophes both man-made and meteorological.
The difficulty of separating fact from fiction, propaganda from analysis, cant from good-faith assertions - has only grown since 2001. With the rise of widespread surveillance both public and private, the monetization of privately collected data, and the use of algorithms on social media sites designed to drive traffic and increase “engagement”, political polarization has increased. Silo effects and echo-chamber effects have multiplied.
To be a kid today is to require a media literacy that a kid from 2001 could scarcely begin to understand. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter are awash in misinformation and disinformation, and neither the platforms nor government regulators have cracked the code on how to filter reality in a way that might ensure the quality of information that circulates. In some ways, the democratization of information is a positive trend. In other ways, it means like seeks like - that much of the country talks past one another. It is part of the reason I feel discomfort at even beginning to attempt to speak for a generation. Funnily, I would probably have that wariness in common with my Republican counterpart, who would not begin to claim to be able to fairly represent my point of view.
Trust, now as then, seems to be the crux of these sorts of calculations, too, when it comes to assessments of online news and opinion. Did I trust my parents, in those September days; to explain what was going on, when I was ten? Implicitly. As I got older, I learned to distrust the government and some media sources, to apply a strong skepticism to what I read and heard, as I saw the state capitalize on the tragedy and trauma, using them to further political ends. I learned to criticize the cynical and self-interested US foreign policy, and to recognize Sontag’s piece for the level-headed assessment it was. It is impossible now to remember the day without taking stock of the toll of the policies that have come about in the two decades since - the increased drone warfare, the Forever Wars, and most recently, the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“If the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky,” Sontag wrote in 2001.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is the world-historical event that abruptly confronts the planet’s children, that sent them home from school for weeks and months, interrupting routines unforgettably. They must interpret it and make sense of it, as we adults do, by listening to their families, friends, and the constant stream of news and talk and words and images on the web. Distrust of the government and the media, on the political right in this case, has led to a low rate of vaccination in the United States, resulting in huge loss of life. I know that reflecting on the past two decades has demonstrated the importance to me, as a young adult, of extricating the signal from the noise when it comes to understanding 9/11, as well as its before and after. It underscores for me the ways in which the stakes of understanding and responding to the current crisis, both at home and abroad, remain terribly high.