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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.

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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.

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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?"

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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."


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