For the last two decades, Americans have said we will “never forget” the attacks of 9/11 — but how am I supposed to remember something that I wasn’t aware of?
20 years ago, I was sitting in my first grade classroom, probably coloring a picture, when my principal announced the school day had been cut short. My teacher didn’t say why, and I was too young to think to ask. All I cared about was going home, watching cartoons and eating chicken nuggets for lunch.
I wasn’t aware that the rest of America was watching in shock and horror as terrorists attacked New York City and Washington D.C. I didn’t notice the weeks and months after as Americans tried to resume their lives while carrying an immense amount of fear on their shoulders. It took a few years before I began to understand why we took a moment of silence during school each morning. It would take 10 years, during my junior year of high school, before I first learned about the American response to the attacks, like the passing of the Patriot Act, launching the War on Terror and the rise of Islamophobia.
Since 2011, more than 10 million people have visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York to commemorate the lives lost and sacrifices made on that day. I visited the memorial in 2017 and was moved by the vast amount of names written at Ground Zero. I walked around the square, trying to recall what the buildings looked like in photos I’d seen. I witnessed older men and women weeping over the names of loved ones they lost to these attacks. Names they haven’t forgotten in 20 years. It was moving to see, particularly because it was one of the first times I was finally able to feel the emotional weight of the attacks.
My life, from what I can reflect on, was not ultimately changed from the 9/11 attacks. I continued going to school, living life in the suburbs of Dallas, not constantly thinking of terrorism happening in the world. Some people my age may remember the attacks if they were directly affected or lost people they knew, but most Americans younger than their mid-twenties probably feel the same as me. Their perception of 9/11 was formed by history lessons, Hollywood movies, country music and the occasional social media meme. They may have had family members and friends who are older who recall what that day meant for them. But we all sit quietly listening to their stories, unable to add our own experiences because we don’t have them.
Young millennials and Gen Z know about 9/11, but our understanding of it is similar to the way older millennials and Gen X feel about D-Day. We all know the importance of the day, we know the facts, we’ve read the personal accounts from it. But to many of us, it’s not a day we can emotionally re-live. There will be a day when people will no longer reflect on 9/11 in the same way they do now. People will inevitably forget or misremember, as the importance of events often fades with the people who experience them.
For many people my age and younger, 9/11 is an important day in a list of other memorable moments of American history. It should be remembered, but there are other dates that deserve just as much recognition. One Gen Zer explained to USA Today that “Gen Z would rather leave stuff like that in the past and focus on today’s problems.”
I don’t remember what I felt on the day of the terrorist attacks. But I do remember the heartbreak and fear over the lives lost in the Sandy Hook shooting, the Aurora movie theater shooting, the Orlando Pulse shooting, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. I remember the need I felt rising in me to do something about the victims of climate disasters like Hurricane Katrina and California’s wildfires.
I am 26 years old now, with a list of facts floating around in my head about the 9/11 attacks. I also have the stories of Muslim friends who grew up in America and faced verbal and sometimes physical attacks. I have the knowledge of what 20 years of war has been like for Afghan refugees. I understand the weight of 9/11 — I promise I do. But it’s not easy to distinguish the importance of 9/11 from other historical, life-altering events I learned about in my history classes. It’s even harder to grasp the emotional weight when I’ve lived through other events that have actually stuck with me.