Friday was 9/11, which meant the “where were you?” talk happened. Normally, I’ve had this conversation with people my own age (we were all in school, given various access to TV), so it wasn’t until I had this conversation with adults (because 26 is still not an adult) did I realize how unusual my take of the day is. I was 12. Old enough to know what was going on, but not quite old enough to comprehend it. I didn’t have political opinions yet. Or knowledge of foreign affairs. I had snippets and phrases from the nightly news, but I wasn’t able to put pieces into a larger picture. I had no need to.
In adulthood, pre- and post- 9/11 have carried similar weight in my mind, similar time. But as I get older, I realize I don’t really understand pre-9/11. I remember being able to walk to the gate of an arriving flight, and I remember a series of news events (Monica, Kosovo, Columbine). But pre-9/11 and childhood are sort of the same thing to me, and I can’t tell if the difference is truly that stark or if it’s only because I became more politically aware around that time. There is a difference because adults told me there was a difference—that it was safer, more optimistic, less paranoid—but it was also that way because I was a kid. Of course everything felt safer, more optimistic, less paranoid.
In grad school I wrote a paper on Bloody Sunday and collective memory. For people growing up in Bogside, Bloody Sunday is a tragedy they all remember, whether they were alive then or not. The event is critical in the community’s narrative, and being personally connected to it is part of being connected to the community. 9/11 is one of those events everyone wants to be connected to. Everyone knows where they were; everyone has their own take. And as the children who are in school now weren’t alive then 9/11 happened, it is difficult to impress the importance of the day. They have never known an America not at war. A beginning and an end seem equally unimaginable.
“You’re able to say you were there, that you saw it happen,” I’m told. Yes, I saw it. I saw the broadcast live. I saw people’s reactions—worry, panic, confusion, rumors, prayers. I remember it personally. But I also remember it collectively. I remember the narrative handed down to me—that this was my generation’s Pearl Harbor and JFK assassination, that this changed everything. But I didn’t know that. Twelve-year-old me didn’t have enough understanding to determine how this tragedy ranked. I didn’t even know the phrase “terrorism” until at least September 12. My personal memory and the collective memory agree on some things and differ on others. And they are both real. I am both an individual and a member of a community. This will happen in every community I am a part of—family, region, religion. I will have my own experiences and memories, and I will have the communal narrative and memory. Sharing in that history is part of what makes me a member of the community.
Did 9/11 change my life? Not personally, not immediately. But it certainly changed the world I lived it. And for many people my age, the division of a pre- and post-9/11 world is also the division between childhood and adulthood. Nothing and everything is different. And future generations will be taught to understand that, even if they weren’t there.