By Channa Buxbaum
For most of my life, 9/11 meant little more to me than another one of the countless terrorist attacks the United States has historically endured. I was three years old when the Twin Towers were hit, so my memory of the day has dwindled to the faintest feeling of unease. Not only that, but as a native Detroiter, I had never met anyone whose life had been personally affected by the attack. It was only when I was given the opportunity to take a guided tour through the 9/11 Memorial Museum that I began to see that there was much more to the day than I had previously perceived. The piece that most struck me was a 40-foot watercolor mosaic consisting of 2,983 different squares of blue, one for each of the 2001 and 1993 terror victims. In the center were Virgil’s haunting words, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Our docent explained that while the specific color of the sky on the day of the attack was slightly altered in each person’s recollection, their collective memories are perhaps the truest memorial.
This deeply personal artwork began my fascination with September 11th and the way Americans react to it. The moment I returned from the museum, I started watching live accounts of the attack, searching for footage from news networks and startled pedestrians alike. Time and again I returned to the memorial site in order to learn the stories of others who, like me, were inexplicably drawn back to the scene of the crime. Looking back, I realize I was experiencing an echo of the raw shock and trauma that had sent America reeling more than a decade and a half ago.
Originally built in the early ‘70s to revitalize New York, the Twin Towers had become the ultimate symbol of freedom, opportunity, and economic prowess throughout the country. They reflected a fiercely optimistic United States, one that looked forward to an equally promising future. But somehow, over a mere hour and 42 minutes, that American ideal – along with the lives of nearly 3,000 American citizens – had been swiftly terminated. Gone were the days of perceived invincibility. Without its two shining beacons, New York City – and America at large – became a much darker place.
It isn’t happenstance that the memory of 9/11 is commonly used as the division between the millennial generation and Gen Z; for all who witnessed it, life was never the same again. Yet most young Americans have relegated 9/11 to a dusty corner of their subconscious, hardly ever to see the light of serious contemplation. This may be due to the fact that there are more people than ever who simply don’t remember life before 9/11. Most students at Yeshiva University have never experienced life without grueling airplane security lines, nor extensive government surveillance, nor the constant threat of terrorism – anytime, anywhere, to anyone. To the people who lived through 9/11, watching live broadcasts and then an endless loop of the attacks was an unimaginable trauma. For many of us, these images have simply been absorbed into the fabric of American society. The shock has dulled to a grim acceptance.
While we may not recall the event itself, its enormous impact continues to affect our daily lives in surprising and often profound ways. President Bush’s near-immediate decision to invade Afghanistan and take down those responsible for 9/11 has since cost the United States thousands of American lives and about 975 billion dollars. The domestic changes made in the aftermath of 9/11 are just as vast. For instance, the Patriot Act, which restricts certain constitutional rights in order to strengthen security, would’ve likely never stood a chance had it not been enacted immediately following the terrorist attacks.
But perhaps most importantly is the enormous change to the collective American psyche. We don’t trust as we used to – not in our country, not in its leaders, not in its foreigners, not even in our fellow citizens. We are deeply pessimistic; after witnessing an enormously destructive yet potentially preventable attack, there is a sense that we can be lied to, exploited, or even killed at any moment. We are living in a perpetual state of national trauma, and yet we also seem to be under the impression that this is simply the way it is. For us, to be an American means to be afraid.
Eighteen years ago, the deadliest terrorist attack to ever take place in the United States shocked and silenced Americans across the country. Now, our country remains silent, but we mustn’t continue tip-toeing around this traumatic event forever. 9/11 may not be the same for those with no memory of it, but as Americans they are nonetheless linked to the day and its implications, both nationally and individually. Whether we are aware of it or not, our political, personal, and social choices are writing the next chapter in the narrative that began on September 11, 2001. As with New York City, we must continue to tear down, rebuild, and renovate our national ethos, expanding ever upward into a skyline of possibility.