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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 / September 9, 2011

This is the cover story in the Sept. 12 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Reuters photo/John Kehe illustration

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Washington

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?

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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.

"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.

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