I was seventeen months old. My father’s company outing had been canceled, grounding him in our Long Island home with me for the day. I was seated on the living room floor directly in front of the television.
A friend of my mother’s called our house: “Are you watching TV?”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “We’re watching Sesame Street.”
“No. Turn on the news.”
Planes were hitting the World Trade Center. President Bush was in a bunker. The cords of the world were unraveling. I watched it all.
I don’t remember a moment of it, of course. Neither do most members of my generation. But for the adults in our lives, the world divided that day into a pre-9/11 and a post-9/11, and they’ll always be comparing the two.
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I do remember my toddling years being dominated by the national anthems pushed into the mainstream by post-9/11 patriotism. My classmates and I performed Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” at my preschool graduation ceremony, years before any of us experienced our first American history lesson. At the time, I didn’t even know the president’s name, but I knew if you weren’t “proud to be an American,” you were a bad person, and that was that. Even throughout my early elementary years, nobody explained to my friends and I what 9/11 actually was. All we knew was that we had an annual moment of silence in school and had to write letters to soldiers “fighting for our freedom,” whatever that meant.
“I think I learned what 9/11 was from Family Guy,” says my boyfriend when I tell him I’m writing this editorial.
Now, in my twenties, I can’t imagine a world in which I don’t remove my shoes to board a plane or flinch when I pass an unaccompanied backpack on the subway platform. Things that were once hotly debated as violations of constitutional freedoms are simple constants of my life. TSA. Background checks. “If you see something, say something.” Whenever a travel partner complains to me about airport security, I snap. “Would you rather be a victim of terrorism?”
I’m not so adamant all the time, and neither are my friends. Us young people don’t always recognize 9/11 as a real historical tragedy — 2,996 is an incomprehensible number of human casualties, not even counting later deaths from the toxic effects of the debris.
Instead, we turn it into a meme. Viral tweets like “Is it too early to put up my 9/11 decorations?” aren’t uncommon this time of year. There’s something to be said about the power of laughter in the face of tragedy. There’s also something to be said about respecting victims and going too far.
This year, take the time to educate the young people in your life about the significance of Sept. 11, 2001. Take the Amtrak into Manhattan and visit the 9/11 Tribute Museum. See the Broadway musical “Come From Away” before it closes in October. Stream National Geographic’s “9/11: One Day in America.” Just because we never experienced a pre-9/11 world doesn’t mean we should take the security measures of today for granted.
Play “God Bless the USA” for them, too. That song is a classic.
Leslie Sattler edits for Broad + Liberty. Previously, she worked as Managing Editor at Our National Conversation, a nonpartisan journalism startup. She has a degree from NYU. @LeslieASattler