Too young to understand, 'Generation 9/11' embraces media for meaning

Many Americans who were too young to understand the events of 9/11 at the time are now using the avalanche of media coverage gain a deeper understanding of that brutal day in history.

David Goldman/AP
Ivy Preparatory Academy sixth graders watch a news reel of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in school in Norcross, Ga. in May.

On September 11, 2001, then-fourth-grader Joshua Habursky watched on his school library TV as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Like most kids, he says, “I didn’t really understand what was happening.”

But now, Mr. Habursky, a sophomore at Washington & Jefferson College near Pittsburgh, has a deepening understanding of the events that unfolded on 9/11.

He has already watched a week's worth of 9/11 documentaries on the National Geographic Channel and organized a viewing Tuesday of a History Channel documentary about the special forces raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abottabad, Pakistan.

As the 10-year mark of the 9/11 attacks nears, Habursky and others like him in the media-literate “Generation 9/11,” as it has been dubbed, are embracing the onslaught of media coverage to deepen their engagement with and understanding of the brutal day in US history.

“The sheer volume” of media has been very helpful, he says. “It has filled in details and fleshed out the day and its meaning so much more for me and my friends.”

This is an extremely media-savvy generation, points out Chris Caruso, executive director of generationOn, the youth division of Points of Light Network, a nonprofit service organization. “They are extremely connected globally,” and more engaged in events all over the planet than any other generation in history, he says.

Chloe Miller, a sophomore at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, says she and her mother watched a documentary on TLC this past week. “I was shocked,” she says, adding that this was the first time she’d seen actual footage of the towers being hit. “I just didn’t understand before how horrible it really must have been and how much it hit home with people all over the country,” she says.

Her mother, Nathalie Miller, points out that she and her husband made a special effort to shield Chloe and her younger brother, Noah, at the time. “I was traumatized watching the buildings fall and all the people looking for loved ones,” she says. “I didn’t want Chloe to have that imagery in her mind and have bad dreams.”

Others were not shielded from the immediate coverage, but may have been too young to understand the historical significance of the unfolding events.

High school senior Lizi Vidar, who attends the North Hollywood High School's Zoo Magnet Center in Los Angeles, says her second-grade teacher turned on the classroom TV on the morning of 9/11, so she witnessed the coverage firsthand. But, she says, it really didn't sink in at the time.

“I didn’t understand that it was malicious,” Ms. Vidar says, noting that her interest has picked up in the past year after watching documentaries during last year’s 9/11 anniversary. “I’m so much more curious about it now, all the details and the way it has changed our daily life – everything from the way we act in airports to the wars our country is fighting.” Vidar says she plans to watch more coverage throughout the week.

Habursky says he plans to keep tabs on media coverage all week leading up to a candlelight vigil he and friends have organized with fellow students on the Washington & Jefferson campus, which is an hour away from Shanksville, Pa., where the fourth hijacked plane went down. Habursky has visited the Shanksville site several times and plans to tour the Pentagon in October.

For Habursky, the variety and depth of coverage of the 9/11 anniversary provides the kind of detail and perspective he and his friends desire. For instance, he points to a show about President Bush’s activities as the day unfolded. “He was in the only plane in the air [after the towers fell],” Habursky said. “They didn’t want his plane to land, and that’s just not something we knew about on the day.”

He points out that while he regards the massive amounts of media coverage as “largely a good thing,” it can sometimes go too far. But his generation is accustomed to a media barrage with important events, he says, and has learned to sort through varying perspectives. “We’re a pretty media-literate generation because that’s how we grew up,” he says, adding, “There’s a lot of crazy stuff on the air too, so you just have to pay attention and figure out whose biases are showing.”

For engaged students like Habursky, 9/11 provides a golden opportunity for learning, says Dana Janbek, a professor at Lasell College in Newton, Mass., and author of “Global Terrorism and New Media: The Post Al-Qaeda Generation.” “ 'Generation 9/11' is very interested and curious about what actually happened. This makes it an excellent opportunity to engage them in a broader discussion of terrorism and political relationships around the world.”

Indeed, Mr. Caruso from generationOn says his group is working with thousands of youths nationwide to turn their interest into action. “This is a generation that wants to have an impact,” he adds.

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