Late Monday night, I was filling out paperwork and hastily tapped my mousepad to check the date. It was just past midnight, and when I picked up my pen, my hand hovered above the form because I did not want to date it 9/11/2012. The start of every year of middle school, high school and college for me has marked another year of living in the post-9/11 era for my generation.
Around the world, Millennials (roughly those born between 1978 and 2000, ranging from those who were college seniors on 9/11 to newborns) have also been deeply impacted by events such as the global financial crisis and the advent of social media, so I wondered if “9/11 generation” was too foreboding and Americentric a term.
Then, the nation woke up Wednesday morning to news that our ambassador to Libya and three of his staff were killed during protests in Benghazi the night before. I swiftly decided that on that Tuesday morning exactly a decade and a year ago, the whole world was ushered into an era in which the aftereffects of 9/11 have been prevailing and persistent.
What was jarring to me in the images from protests across the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and South Asia, which were ignited by an anti-Muslim movie trailer made in the U.S., was seeing the American flag defaced, trampled on, burned and shredded. As intelligence surfaced that the murders may have been planned, it was clear that the date was not lost on protesters. One young man in Indonesia held a hand-written sign with the message “O AMERICA REMEMBER 9/11, JIHAD AGAINST CHRISTIAN EXTREMIST.”
The day before, I had seen a flurry of miniature flags arrayed on the Arts Quad in remembrance of 9/11.These flags were not brandished in the shaking hands of spiteful demonstrators but planted staidly on a picturesque lawn, to be regarded with requisite reverence from afar. Yet, the sight of these flags troubled me as well.
As I passed the temporary memorial (no doubt only permitted for one day due to the bureaucratic Use of University Property process), “Never Forget” echoed in my head. The phrase had been popping up on my newsfeed and Twitter feed all day, often attached to a picture of an American flag or the Freedom Tower. These two images of unity and resilience are uplifting for they have the lightness and fullness of a balloon, but as visual memorials, they fail to carry the weight of the losses endured on the that day and in the intervening years.
By the numbers, the lives of 3,000 Americans were lost on 9/11, and the lives of 6,572 U.S. service members have been lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The mourned fallen rest atop a cascade of others – the families, the wounded in military uniforms and plainclothes and the witnesses to violent acts of terrorism and anti-terrorism – who are all also victims of the War on Terror and of 9/11.
This summer when I watched The Dark Knight Rises, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as tanks rolled through Gotham City, which is transparently modeled on New York. After visiting London and Berlin, where the damage from World War II bombing is still visible on buildings and statues, I became aware of the literalness of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I know I risk being accused by Romney and his ilk for sympathizing with our enemies, but I remain disturbed by my sensory remove from U.S. operations that are not only killing terrorists but also Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis, and not only leveling terrorist headquarters but also residential homes.
What most Millenials knows of how the War on Terror actually looks, smells or feels like comes from slideshows, video footage and, sometimes, Hollywood depictions, not personal experience. That is, of course, unless you were on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan or even New York City. The mountains of rubble and the carnage of bodies charred, crushed and splattered at Ground Zero is the only parcel of the War on Terror landscape that Americans can claim.
If we were to more insistently remember what New York City concretely looked, smelled and felt like on the day the war essentially began, then we would have a better idea of the kinds of landscapes our military has been creating in far-flung countries for the past decade.
Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.