I was in seventh grade, and it happened at lunch. I don’t know what we were eating — chicken nuggets, most likely.
I wasn’t aware of it right away, but already there were whispers: something happened in New York City, at the Twin Towers. Was it an accident? Or was it a malevolent act?
We’d find out later. My English teacher told us that planes had struck both lead towers of the World Trade Center. Another had hit the Pentagon. Strangely, I didn’t think anyone had died. I assumed the buildings were damaged and that they would later be repaired.
At the end of the day we were called down to an assembly and we were told that the whole thing was an accident. They gave us the usual spiel: talk to your parents; we’re here if you need us; it’s okay to cry.
I went home and turned on the news and stayed glued to it. They kept replaying the crash and the carnage: the explosions, the screaming. I was horrified.
This, of course, was no accident.
Obviously, I knew that what took place was a terrorist attack. But I couldn’t decipher the motivations.
And this led to something funny, perhaps darkly so: I recognized immediately that the Twin Towers were the two tallest buildings in New York City. So instead of viewing the attack as a Huntington-esque “clash of civilizations,” I assumed al-Qaeda wanted to destroy large buildings.
Our middle school was, I thought, the tallest building in town. Were we next?
But the event did teach me something. My insular childhood bubble had been popped, and I began to see things as they are — fallen, warped, corrupt, and beautiful. We all eventually experience this, but it usually involves cheating, or getting yelled at, or witnessing bullying — sins small and large, petty and profound.
This was also my awakening to politics. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, then I’m not sure I would have studied the subject, and I wouldn’t know much about the order of things.
I’m sure others in my age group can say the same. Other people, however, likely have different thoughts. Some have known nothing but war. They were born in the ’90s and — it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? — the ’00s. Thus 9/11 means nothing to them; it’s merely another passage in a history book. And then there are people who remember the Cold War, Vietnam, and so on.
Such statements seem obvious, and that’s because they are. But examining how each generation views 9/11, though, is important, for it shows how we engage the world.
Let’s consider the pessimistic and optimistic traits found in the culture. A lot of members of Generation X, of the Boomers, and of other earlier generations tend to look at the post-9/11 world as proof of the West’s spiral into the abyss. There isn’t much we can do about it, they say or think in despair, for we’ve lost to radical Islam; our culture no longer has any confidence in itself.
Younger people — those born in the ’90s and later — tend to be almost utopian in their outlook, an outlook most likely stemming from being born into and coming of age in a country at war.
My generation — what PJM associate editor Dave Swindle calls the X-leaning Millennial — is in the middle. We’re not overly pessimistic, but we’re not entirely optimistic, either.
Now what does this mean?
September 11, as the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard put it, was an “absolute event.” In it we witnessed the specters of America and Islam clashing, essentially causing “triumphant globalization [to battle] against itself.” What he’s talking about here is modernity.
Modernity is, quite honestly, the center of September 11 and its aftermath. When the culture first attempted to understand the jihadist threat, it imagined a bunch of people hiding in caves, silently plotting another attack. But that was inaccurate. Consider this passage from Michael Brendan Dougherty’s recent essay titled “How the West Produces Jihadi Tourists”:
As long as Western liberalism has existed, it has been found charmless or contemptible by some men. Western liberalism asks men to be governed by laws made by mere men and their politicking. It demands of most men that they be mere citizens. It urges thrift, prudence, and industry. This is not for everyone.
He’s right, but modernity isn’t found only in the West. As David P. Goldman discusses in How Civilizations Die, it’s ravaging the Middle East, too. He writes:
The Arab suicide bomber is the spiritual cousin of the despondent aboriginal of the Amazon rain forest. And European apathy is the opposite side of the coin of Islamic extremism. Both apathetic Europeans and radical Muslims have lost their connection to the past and their confidence in the future. There is not a great deal of daylight between European resignation to cultural extinction at the hundred-year horizon and the Islamist boast, “You love life, and we love death.”
But at least we can focus our apathy on what Pascal termed our “distractions.” As he said, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”
The Islamic world isn’t doing that, though. It is, as Goldman put it, a ticking “time bomb that cannot be defused.” He continues:
Imminent population collapse makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose.
We are not facing Muslims who have not been properly assimilated. We’re not staring at Islamic conquerors who have arrived here from the past. Jihadists are, to put it bluntly, middle class and wealthy people who are bored and who disturbingly find inspiration and escape in Islamic terrorism. Human beings need action. Young Muslims, as well as converts, are not going to get it from the West, and, since the Middle East is facing a demographic implosion, they won’t find it there, either. As Tim Stanley rightly observed, the alternatives of freedom and choice just won’t do it. That’s what makes radical Islam so terrifying.
Goldman says that, in order to properly respond to the world as it is today, “we must do better than secular political science,” for it is “uniquely ill-equipped to make sense of a global crisis whose ultimate cause is spiritual.” The West and the Arab world both need to come face-to-face with truth. We are, after all, spiritual and relational beings, created in the image and likeness of God, however much that has been obscured by modernity.
But we human beings are also terrified of truth — and here’s where we must turn to the generational analysis. I’d argue that the pessimism of the Xers, of the Boomers, and of some others actually comes from a shattered optimism. They believed in their world and when it broke they couldn’t understand why. Consider the constant refrain of “What is this world coming to?” and “What is wrong with people?” The younger Millenials are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Their quasi-utopian outlook prevents them from actually engaging things as they are. And, as Ron Fournier noted in an article from August of 2013, when they do see things they don’t like, they figure they’ll just smash them and start anew.
My generation — the X-leaning Millennials — exists in a kind of liminal state. We contain both optimism and pessimism. And we’re also indecisive, so we’re not sure what to make of our world as it is.
But, unfortunately, all of us have been soaked in the juices of modernity, which is why, as C.S. Lewis observed in The Screwtape Letters, we split ourselves up into generations in the first place. We have forgotten that we all share a human nature and instead view ourselves as separate peoples. We have ignored truth. As such, the Boomers, the Xers, and Millenials had to come to 9/11 in disconnected fashion, bringing distinct biases and mores.
Until we grasp what Goldman discussed in How Civilizations Die, we will revisit September 11, 2001, every year, failing to understand why it happened. We won’t be much different from how I was in seventh grade: sitting in the cafeteria and quietly eating chicken nuggets — distracted by something or other — wondering whether the plane crash in New York City was some kind of accident.