Uncertainty from 9/11 lingers over generation

September 11, 2005|By Barry Petchesky

FOUR YEARS ago, like many high school seniors, I was uncertain. I had no idea which college I would attend, not even where I might be interested in applying. Then, as I walked from the subway station to school on a cloudless morning, a plane flew low overhead and slammed into the World Trade Center four blocks away.

That changed everything but the uncertainty, which just became a permanent part of day-to-day life.

I was never in fear for my life that day, not even as the debris plume chased me northward on Greenwich Street. But there was a longer-lasting fear that, in days, months and years afterward, came to rest on us all.

Now there is doubt - the legitimate question about whether we are safe in our own cities and towns. It's not panic over what happened, but the lingering fear of what might happen next that has settled over us like a storm cloud.

On the fourth anniversary of the attacks, there is talk of people forgetting. The NFL is kicking off its season and my school has scheduled an outing to Six Flags amusement park. By all outward appearances, the events of 9/11 don't seem to be on people's minds. But the uncertainty born on that day is still with us, underneath.

Even if the specific events of the day grow hazy with time, we are unable to forget the impact of 9/11 because we are forcibly reminded daily.

The subconscious link is made every time there is news of terrorism from Iraq or London or Israel, even the aftermath of Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans. Every time my bag is searched at an airport or ballgame, the frustration gives way to memory.

This is the curse of the 9/11 Generation. This is how our world has been defined.

My parents, who grew up in the midst of the arms race with the Soviets, thought they would be the last ones living under the specter of war at home. Now my generation has been forced to confront the looming prospect of a terrorist strike on American soil, dealing with the terror of terrorism.

The parallels are far from absolute. My father recalls that there was never the pervasive sense of danger during the Cold War that exists today; the duck-and-cover drills being fun, but mostly a nuisance. In those days, the nightly network news was the extent of most people's exposure to world events.

But the 9/11 Generation lives in the information age, so it's impossible for us to avoid the more unpleasant realities. I had the misfortune of being far too close to the World Trade Center that day - close enough to see people jumping from windows and to smell burning debris. But all Americans have been exposed and overexposed to the events.

Television uses the spectacular file footage ad nauseum, and I use the phrase literally. Much of the country fails to realize the gut reaction the memories can bring out in those of us who witnessed the attacks. They show the towers smoking, I see the planes crashing; they show people hanging out the windows, I see bodies falling. I try to cope by avoiding the reminders, but it's impossible.

The Zeitgeist is such that the increasingly sensationalist media feeds off the public's anxiety, and the government capitalizes on it. If the attacks weren't enough to keep us in a state of alert, we've constantly got authority figures telling us to be afraid. That's how my generation will be defined by history - fearful. We've been given every excuse to be afraid and every reason to keep the memory of 9/11 close at hand. Will we overcome either?

It's the classic struggle for normalcy. Every day we take our safety for granted is a minor victory. Every day that 9/11 can feel more like distant history rather than current events is a step in the right direction. We won't ever forget anyway because this was our Pearl Harbor.

But I hope there will come a time when the only occasion we are reminded will be on the anniversary of the date. That will be the 9/11 Generation's triumph.

Barry Petchesky is a senior majoring in journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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