September 15, 2014

GLICK | In the Towers’ Shadow: 9/11, ISIS and Our Generations’ Identity

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Last week, when our smartphone screens glowed emotionlessly with the banner “Thursday, September 11,” all of us must have felt something. For a few of us, 13-year-old scars prickled with a bit more discomfort than usual; for others, I’m sure, it was as if the towers were falling all over again. No one would gain anything from a column recounting my experiences as a third grader from the New York area — our collective memory is already saturated with tales of frantic phones and smoke rising at the edge of the horizon. What I find much more interesting, however, is how much our generational psyche has shifted — and, indeed, dissipated — since that single, terrifying, elementary school morning of unity.

It’s especially relevant, this year, to consider 9/11’s impact on our generational psyche. This 13th anniversary was notable not because of the gleaming, ostentatiously triumphant mass of the One World Trade Center, but because of the presidential address on ISIS that dominated the headlines.  Though President Barack Obama’s speech was not overwhelmed with analogies between Iraq’s current crisis and America’s first shock of exposure to Islamic extremism — which is probably for the best — the timing of his speech is by no means a coincidence. Though the term “War on Terror” does not adequately explain why American bombs were dropped on Afghanistan after 9/11 or why American bombs are now falling in Syria and (yet again) Iraq, there is a common thread that can tie together the dangerous history of American involvement in the Middle East for all of our years as self-aware citizens. And, in so many ways, that common thread finds its origin in that clear September morning.

So what does that mean for students like us? It doesn’t seem as though anyone very much cared about the President’s address last week. The official announcement of an American return to Iraq — however prudent and limited that return might be — could have easily set off fireworks. But no one on the Hill, so far as I can see, has begun to shout about a 21st century Lyndon Johnson keeping us mired in the 21st century’s Vietnam. I would not agree with the comparison, but I must admit that, in a university whose anti-Vietnam history is as deep and as well-know as Cornell’s, I was surprised that comparison was not made more loudly.

Perhaps it is because of 9/11. All of us here have come of age in a time of immense global strife. We are looking back constantly at the idyllic ‘90s (BuzzFeed, anyone?) and each of us, in some way or another, must wonder what went wrong. There are a thousand reasons why — most of them mere abstractions to those of us fortunate enough to be reading or writing The Sun— and so it’s easy to march along, divided and confused, because the planet has not given us much to be sure about. There is but one moment of truly non-partisan clarity for our generation, a single event that drew that etched on all our eyelid’s the same, achingly vivid image. No toppled dictator or elected president or invaded country can ever have the same perversely poetic significance for our generation as does the felling of the Twin Towers.

President Obama very clearly wants the American public to equate this battle against ISIS with semi-covert American operations in Somalia and Yemen. These, and not Afghanistan nor the Second Iraq War, are the templates for “the War on Terror”: ceaseless, airstrike-driven and largely out of the public consciousness. Are we, as the Millennial generation, more apt to accept these forever almost-wars because, for as long as we can remember, we have been at war? Our collective identity — though it’s been worn away in the 13 years since 9/11 — was not formed with triumph: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the moon landing, V-E day. We are the 9/11 generation, and the world we’ve come to know has been a world in which ISIS never seemed too far away. The shadow of terrorism, rather than a frightening new chapter in international history, is for us all we have ever known. The superficial neatness of the world that existed for us when we woke up for elementary school 13 years ago was never anything more than the fantasy of children. Perhaps that is why, as our elders panic over each move the President makes to counter this growing evil, none of us seem very surprised.

Jacob Glick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.