My most vivid memory of 9/11 has nothing to do with the towers or the Pentagon or the anonymous Pennsylvania field where United 93 crashed. It is only a single televised image — a white van sitting under an empty highway overpass late that night. I don’t know exactly why the news channel was fixated on the van, but I seem to remember a caption that included the words “suspicious van.” I’m tempted to frame this image as some sort of metaphor for what it was like to come of age after 9/11 — how ordinary objects became sources of fear, how the banalities of everyday life took on a sense of anxiety, how things can seem to mean everything and nothing at all. But this image has likely stayed with me because of the strange mechanics of memory and not for symbolic purposes.
Since 2001 our generation has been told that we will be forever defined by 9/11. As the story goes, we were pimply middle schoolers just beginning to understand ourselves and our place in the world when a violent attack perpetrated by an indefinable enemy redrew the trajectory of our sociocultural development, and, from that point forward, has served as the lens through which we view the world. Although the world changed forever on 9/11, as our commencement speaker would say, the only things we know about the pre-9/11 world are things that matter to small children. This world, the changed world, is the only one we’ve ever known.
This definition is probably somewhat true, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Personally, I feel a certain distance from the large, historic event that writers and pundits use to categorize our generation. I remember 9/11 — the shock and confusion with which I watched the events unfold — but I don’t remember feeling like it was something that was happening in my own time and place. Perhaps I was too young, or too far from New York or D.C., or too stunned to process the violence in front of me. But to this day, even though I know 9/11 is supposed to define my position in American culture, I can never seem to get close enough to the attacks to really understand what that definition entails.
Last Sunday night — after Obama announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden and the news started broadcasting images of students pouring into the streets of their respective college towns — was probably the only time I have explicitly felt the effect of 9/11 on our generation.
While some questioned the morality of celebrating a death, and others questioned the rationality of celebrating the death of a man whose symbolic power far outweighed his practical power, a sizable portion of college kids met the news with unbridled bliss. At Penn State, a 6,000-person “freedom riot” broke out. At Ohio State, students splashed around in a lake for a few hours. At West Virginia, students upheld the centuries-old Appalachian pastime of burning a bunch of stuff. And at Cornell, people dusted off the American flag pants that they’ve been saving for a special occasion and took to College Ave.
Obviously there are elements of these celebrations that have a lot more to do with college kids being dumb alcoholics than with the symbolic importance of Osama’s death to our generation. But it takes more than silliness and alcohol to bring campuses to life these days, and the spontaneous, simultaneous nature of the celebrations suggests that Osama’s death was particularly meaningful to us.
Our generation had never experienced a true national victory. Since 2001 we’ve been deflated by two endless wars, an economic collapse and a string of natural disasters and international embarrassments. Hell, our basketball team even lost the 2004 Olympics. All of these letdowns, as well as 9/11, combine to produce a hapless cultural upbringing.
Killing bin Laden was a stunning break in that string of tragedies, a pure, unimpeachable success after a decade of failure.
I assume that all generations think that the past was better, and that their world is trending toward apocalypse. I’d imagine that coming of age during the height of the Cold War, when the world could literally blow up at any moment, was a much more traumatizing experience than coming of age post-9/11. But whereas the baby boomers grew up with the threat of spontaneous combustion, we have grown up with the seeming reality of decay — the sense that our country is slowly and unspectacularly withering away.
What we saw Sunday night was our generation’s attempt to reject this notion, to assert our own identity, to redefine the label stuck on our 13-year-old selves, to replace the stain of tragedy with a badge of success.
Yes, they were irrational and absurd, but the celebrations Sunday night, with our parents and country fast asleep, anticipated a fresh start for us all.
As this is my 40th and final column for The Sun, I feel obligated to write a quick postscript. Whether you’ve read all 40 of my columns (unlikely) or you’ve just finished reading your first, I am eternally grateful that you took the time to consider my ideas. Without you, these words would mean nothing.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to The Cornell Daily Sun. The Sun takes its fair share of shit (sometimes rightfully so), but it is ultimately a meaningful institution on this campus, and I feel lucky that it afforded me this space for the last three and a half years.
Finally, there is the issue of my silly, pretentious moniker. Since I started writing this column, I’ve been stricken by the feeling that my moniker is really, really dumb. But after each of these lapses I tend to accept that it is actually quite fitting, that these words and paragraphs are really a futile attempt to make sense of an absurdity exhibition.
Tony Manfred is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Absurdity Exhibition appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.