How 9/11 has shaped a generation of Americans

The terrorist attacks have become this generation's Pearl Harbor – an epic event that has changed young peoples' view of the world and America's place in it.

By , Staff writer

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    This is the cover story in the Sept. 12 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.
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Nicolette Boehland was in creative writing class when she heard terrorists had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She and her fellow students got a brief glimpse of the smoke and flames before their teacher resumed instruction with a classic assignment: How did these events make them feel?

A sophomore at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., Ms. Boehland was thinking about becoming a writer. But she was far more interested in what was actually happening out there in the world than in her own momentary emotions.

She got up and walked out of class to resume following the tragic story line of Sept. 11. In that moment her life's direction changed. The next semester she enrolled in a course on Middle East politics. A year later she was studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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"It was not like I was going to put 9/11 in my life. It was more like I had to understand how I fit into 9/11 and understand what was happening first before I could process it internally," she says. "It was a real shocker that things that happen externally and world events can have a huge impact on you, and if you don't understand them you'll be lost in a fog and confused."

Isaac Miguel knew something was up that September day because he could hear that the television in his parents' room was on – at 5 a.m. local time in Honolulu, where they lived. A seventh-grader, he'd never heard of the World Trade Center until his mother explained what was going on. He barely knew where New York City was.

His reaction was a slow-building wave. He attended an all-boys private high school where many of his classmates were military kids. He heard a lot about what their parents were doing overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan – and increasingly, he wanted to join them. First he enrolled in ROTC. Then with his parents' consent he signed up for the Marines after his junior year. Today he's a sergeant who's served in both war zones. "I really wanted to be a part of it," he says.

9/11 was a fire that shaped a generation. It's true that Americans of all ages felt shock, fear, and uncertainty at attacks unlike any the nation had experienced. But for young people, the events of that day were a defining epic, in the way that Pearl Harbor and John F. Kennedy's assassination were for their elders.

For many it was the first time they'd seen adults cry; the first time they'd felt their security threatened; the first time the outside world had reached through the television screen and tapped them on the shoulder, figuratively speaking.

Not all of them learned Arabic. Not all of them joined the military. Their lives may have been affected by Facebook and new social networks as much as by the visage of Osama bin Laden.

But for those born after the early 1980s, Islamist terrorism has become their tiger in the smoke – the main unpredictable threat to the nation, as was nuclear war in an earlier era. These so-called Millennials have grown up in an age of insecurity and that has made them different from their Generation X predecessors.

They are more team oriented than their elders. Polls show they strongly support the military. In some ways, they are more conventional in how they approach their lives. At the same time, they feel pressure to accomplish big things, to set the problems of the world right.

"One rule is that a generation's collective identity is decisively shaped by its location in history," said Paul Taylor, a Pew Research Center pollster, at a conference at the US Military Academy at West Point in New York earlier this year on Millennial attitudes. "Millennials are becoming adults during a decade bracketed by emergencies – 9/11 and the Great Recession."

Terrorism expert James Forest had a good spot from which to watch Millennial collective identity develop. In 2001 he was an instructor at the Military Academy. In the wake of the terrorist attacks that year, interest in the academy surged. High school student body presidents, valedictorians, and football captains from across the nation lined up to join the Army and graduate to fight Al Qaeda.

Then time dragged on, and so did what used to be known as the GWOT, the Global War on Terror. Casualties mounted. Deployments followed deployments. Iraq seemed intractable. Afghanistan seemed ungovernable. It would have been understandable if interest in West Point flagged. But it did not, according to Dr. Forest. Applications have stayed high and retention has stayed strong.

"In each cadet you see an amazing commitment to service and leadership in a time of war. If we are calling this the '9/11 Generation' then these are the members of that generation about whom we should be the most proud," says Forest.

Today Forest teaches courses on terrorism and security studies in the department of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His classes are always filled, he says, reflecting strong civilian student interest in the subject nationwide.

Part of that is due to the job opportunities that have arisen in recent years in the homeland security business, from the federal down to the local levels. Part of it is intellectual curiosity.

"I see in these students a real interest in understanding the pervasive nature of this terrorism threat – why haven't we been able to shoot or bomb this problem away?" says Forest. "Why are we still fighting terrorism? Why is this kind of threat different from others we have faced?"

* * *

For Boehland, the intellectual challenge involved not Islamist terrorism per se but the entire Middle East. Prior to 9/11, and her life-changing walk out of creative writing class, she had never traveled outside North America. She says she didn't even know the difference between Egypt and Jordan.

Traveling to Egypt to study at the American University for six months was a huge leap of faith on her part. But once there she was hooked. She wanted to understand the region and its culture.

"[The Middle East] was a place where things happened. It was a place where there were revolutions and wars," she says. "It felt like an amazing, almost epic novel, especially coming from Minnesota where the history is not that epic. I found that fascinating."

Lewis & Clark College did not have an Arabic program, so after her return to the United States, Boehland enrolled in transfer classes at Portland State University. For the rest of her time as a student, she rode her bike an hour each day to take Arabic. She says that after her graduation in 2005 recruiters from the Central Intelligence Agency approached everyone in her Arabic class about possible work.

Boehland decided to work for nongovernmental international organizations instead. She spent three years at Human Rights Watch in New York City, followed by a year and a half on a Fulbright grant studying Iraqi refugee issues in Jordan.

Then she took a job with Save the Children working in the West Bank and Gaza for a year. Now she's just completed her first year at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. – but rather than spending this summer interning at a corporate firm, as did many of her classmates, she worked in Kabul at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Reflecting on the past decade, Boehland says that the decisions she made immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks have affected almost every aspect of her life. "Even if I were to just give up completely on international human rights, if I were to not travel again ever – which I don't think is likely, I'll probably be traveling for most of my life – it's just changed my perception of my place in the world and America's place in the world. I can see America in a mix of different countries, rather than seeing everything through the American lens," she says.

In the confusing days following the 9/11 attacks, a student approached John Lewis Gaddis, the noted cold-war historian at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and asked a pointed question.

"I'm going to say something that may offend some people, and I apologize if it does. But is it OK now for us to be patriotic?" the student asked.

"Yes, I think it would [be]," Dr. Gaddis replied.

But it turned out that patriotism, in this case, did not necessarily just mean slapping flag patches on backpacks. Over the weeks that followed, Gaddis was taken by the urgency with which his students tried to define what patriotism meant. For some, it was indeed flag-waving. For others, it was a rediscovery of the distinctions between right and wrong. For still others it was the principle of tolerance.

"In each instance, though, [there was] a search for an anchor, for a center of gravity," wrote Gaddis in a 2002 article in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

This trend has only intensified in the years since. The 9/11 generation is indeed patriotic, or at least defines itself as such, according to polls. But theirs is not the patriotism of the baby boomers, or even the World War II Silent Generation.

They turned out in large numbers to celebrate in the streets on the night President Obama announced that US Special Forces had caught and killed Mr. bin Laden. Fifty-three percent of them agree with the statement "America is one of the greatest nations in the world," according to a Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year.

At the same time, they are not believers in "exceptionalism" – the notion that the US is No. 1, period. Only 27 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 agree that "America stands above all others," according to the same Pew survey. That's by far the lowest such percentage of any age group.

Historian and demographer Neil Howe, in a 2009 study of Millennial political attitudes, concluded that Millennials are wary of too much idealism when it comes to the nation's international role.

"Like older liberals, they believe that diplomacy and multilateralism are generally the best means to keep America strong and safe. Like older conservatives, they don't hesitate to use force when needed and support military service with patriotic enthusiasm," wrote Mr. Howe and coauthor Renee Nadler in the 2009 study.

Most of them have not served in the military themselves. In the days of the draft, Army (or Navy or Air Force) experience was widespread among young people. With the advent of the all-volunteer force, it has become concentrated in a smaller slice of the population.

But Millennials dominate the ranks of today's armed services. Over the past 10 years, some 5 million young people have worn their country's uniform, noted Mr. Obama in an Aug. 30 speech to the American Legion national convention.

This military 9/11 generation has paid a heavy price, deploying again and again to Iraq and Afghanistan, said Obama. Trained to fight, they've been forced by circumstances to become ad hoc diplomats, mayors, and development experts.

"Young captains, sergeants, lieutenants, they've assumed responsibilities reserved for more senior commanders and remind us that in an era when so many other institutions have shirked their obligations, the men and women of the United States military welcome responsibility," said Obama.

Raised in the era of the Internet and the iPhone, they've also adapted new technologies to the battlefield.

That's certainly the case with Isaac Miguel. Marine Sgt. Miguel is a tactical data network operator. He's set up videoconference equipment in Iraq and done computer-network security for forward bases in Afghanistan. He helps provide information capabilities that are unsurprising to Millennials – but a revelation to some in the top Marine ranks.

"There are a lot of older operators for whom anything we put out is new to them," says Miguel.

This generational disconnect can have effects on both sides of the age divide, of course. One day an older sergeant major told Miguel he'd served as a teletype operator. Miguel had to look that up to see what it meant.

"I had to keep myself from laughing," he says.

Miguel joined the corps in full knowledge that he would be sent overseas to a hot war. That's what marines do. That's what he wanted to do.

Miguel arrived in Iraq on the day of his first anniversary in the military. At the time, he was 19 years old. He was there for seven months, working out of Camp Fallujah and Al Asad Airbase, with an occasional trip to a combat outpost.

When he came back, he had deployment experience, but not enough to ensure a long stay in the US. Soon he was back overseas, in Afghanistan, doing the routine he'd followed in Iraq. Today he's at Camp Pendleton in southern California. With about a year left in his enlistment, he's leaning toward getting out and trying the civilian sector, he says.

Despite his experience with information technology, Miguel wants to pursue something with history or political science, such as becoming a teacher. "If I become a teacher, I will be teaching kids about what the marines in my time in the corps have done," he says.

* * *

9/11 was a fire that shaped a generation – but it was not the only fire. Millennials who responded to a Monitor Facebook inquiry listed a number of important influences on their outlook, from 9/11 and the war on terror to Obama's election, the Great Recession of 2008, and the Arab Spring.

"The moment that really brought me up to speed in worldwide politics would be the revolts/revolutions occurring in the Middle East," wrote reader Louis Gonzales, who was in seventh grade when 9/11 occurred. "When I was younger, I never dreamed of seeing what was occurring in Libya/Egypt. These brave people took a stand against oppression and made a significant difference for their country."

Howe, the demographer, has said that perhaps the most profound cultural shift that has affected Millennials is the trend toward more and more parental sheltering. This is a generation raised by helicopter moms and dads. At a West Point seminar on Millennial attitudes in June, Howe pointed toward a recruiting slogan he felt was in accordance with this attitude: "You made them strong. We'll make them Army strong."

In a recent Pew Research survey, when asked what makes their generation unique, a plurality of 24 percent of Millennials picked "technology use." They've fused gadgets into their social lives in a way their elders haven't.

Millennials remain upbeat in a relatively downbeat time, according to Pew's Mr. Taylor. Ninety percent think they'll have enough money to do what they want with their lives.

That does not necessarily mean they are blind to the calamities of the world. "Sept. 11 was a deep tragedy, with victims we all mourned, and though we had names and faces flashed on a TV screen or in the newspaper, many of us did not know the victims personally," commented Mellissa Bergen, a 28-year-old pastor from Shafter, Calif., in response to the Monitor's Facebook inquiry.

"I personally know too many victims of the Great Recession to count," Ms. Bergen continued. "Both Sept. 11 and the Great Recession affected my worldview in similar ways. They made me realize the world is smaller than it seems to be and how much we rely on others. We need each other."

• Correspondent Tom A. Peter in Kabul, Afghan­istan, contributed to this report.

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