Since 9/11 was one of those events that everyone remembers where they were when they heard about it, here is mine: I was sitting in a classroom in the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel about to begin a class I was checking out (but didn’t end up taking). The yeshiva catered to students from abroad, so cell phones began ringing with the news from families back home. When it became apparent that planes hitting the towers was not a freak accident but a deliberate act, the Rabbi dismissed the class, and I went home and sat with Yohanna in our apartment in Jerusalem watching CNN for the rest of the day.
We were in Israel for our year-long study abroad as part of our rabbinical school training. But more significant than where we were or what we were doing, was that we had an infant. Our son would turn one 19 days later, he was born the prior September.
He would, essentially, grow up with this event. His life would be defined by 9/11 and this new reality. And now here we are, on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, and he is an adult, about to go off to college and begin the next stage of his life having his childhood lived almost entirely in a country and world that is defined by the attacks in NY and DC.
And what is the “post-9/11 age”? There are, of course, the long lines at the airport taking off shoes and belts as we pass through security, which is perhaps the most visible and commonly experienced effect. This is the new normal, and for my son the only normal as he experiences air travel post-9/11. There is the Department of Homeland Security, new laws and policies and procedures, and there is the seemingly endless military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eighteen years later what was once different and extraordinary has become regular and expected.
And at the same time we are still figuring out what is the “post-9/11 age.” In recent years it seems that the post-9/11 reality has shifted in that the threats seem less external than internal. (Except for all the talk of nuclear weapons, which takes us back to a reality of my childhood in the 1980s.) The terrorists are most likely to come from within than without. As the parent of this young Jewish adult my fears are not about a major terrorist incident, but its about the violence perpetrated through unchecked gun violence. Its not about being attacked by Muslim fundamentalists from abroad, its about being attacked by white supremacist fundamentalists from here.
But there is another piece of what it means to have grown up in this post-9/11 world. The reality of the political and military response demanded another type of response demonstrated in the values we tried to instill in him throughout his childhood. That this post-9/11 world demanded that you get to know your neighbor, especially those who are different than you. That people unlike you are not your “enemy.” That categorizing people solely by race, or nationality, or religion is harmful both to them and to you. That kindness and compassion should be your default. That law does not always mean justice.
As he becomes an adult, begins his higher education, it is our hope that this–and not fear and suspicion–is his post-9/11 reality.
This next chapter of his life will also be defined by 9/11 in a different way. After the attack on the twin towers, my father, an attorney, did pro bono work for families who lost loved ones. One woman who lost her husband who recouped some financial compensation asked him what she could do to repay him for all his help. He refused payment, but a few days later he got a call from her financial adviser informing him that she had set up a college fund for my son. My dad demurred, but she insisted. Now years later My son’s schooling will be supported in part directly from 9/11.
The events of 9/11 are ones that we will continue to remember, either through recalling where we were, mourning loved ones, or contemplating the political and cultural realities of the past two decades. And now it is on my son and his generation, who are as old as the events themselves and who are defined by them in more ways than one, who are adults that can now vote and serve, who are poised to explore and learn and grow and teach, to help shape this new stage of our post-9/11 reality.
(The image is flowers in the field in Shanksville, PA where Fight 93 crashed. We visited as a family last summer.)