The Post-9/11 Generation

The only America the young have ever known is one knocked off its high horse.

JERSEY CITY, NJ – SEPTEMBER 3: The annual Tribute in Light that will mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center is tested in New York City on September 3, 2021 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Last September 11 a writer not much older than myself worried that, as more and more people too young to remember the terrorist attacks of 2001 aged into adulthood, the date might lose some of its emotional charge and political significance. I fall comfortably into the age group in question here: I turned two a few months before that fateful day, and my first memories all come from years later. The events of the early aughts, from the toppling of the Twin Towers to the invasion of Iraq and beyond, exist to me only as history. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Much has been made, year after year, of the unity that seized America in the wake of the attacks, and not without cause. Remarkable acts of heroism, not to mention ones of kindness, defined the immediate reaction that September. We should always honor the sacrifices of those who risked life and limb in service to their countrymen, and we can certainly appreciate a temporary mending of America’s civic fabric.

But the horror of a deadly assault on American soil—of watching black smoke rise above the New York City skyline, skyscrapers crumble, and thousands of our people falling with them or meeting even more brutal ends amid the wreckage—also found Americans united in an often blinding anger. Only in the wake of such a devastation could powerful, malignant interests in government and beyond prosecute not one but two reckless wars which were, they insisted, not just revenge but necessary to prevent a repetition.

Because of its potency and accessibility as a point of reference, particularly horrible events these last few years have sometimes been discussed in terms of “x 9/11s.” (I remember a time, fairly early on, when certain commentators spoke of Covid-19 as being “as bad as 63 9/11s.”) Well, the escalation of American imperialism in the Mideast in the aftermath of Al Qaeda’s attack has outpaced the human cost of that day by a factor of 310, according to the latest estimates from Brown University’s Costs of War Project. Three hundred and ten. Even counting just non-combatant civilians, we’re still talking about somewhere between 120 and 130 times as many as those killed by Al Qaeda on our soil. Twenty years of vengeance have left just under a million people dead.

This could only have happened under the fog of intense national trauma. Even now, the domestic partisans of overseas militarism invoke the specter of another attack to insist on further bloodshed. In the Washington Free Beacon, for instance, founding editor Matthew Continetti warns that the long overdue end of our nation-building project in Afghanistan “may resuscitate global jihad at the very moment when that ignoble cause was on the verge of defeat. It may revive the fighting spirit and grand ambition of localized and constrained terrorist groups just as America turns inward and aloof.” (It is especially convenient for those making the case against withdrawal that “the very moment” when danger is “on the verge of defeat” is always just around the corner, and has been for two decades.) “The high cost of war,” Continetti writes, “bought safety for the homeland and a reduction in radical Islamic terrorism.”

Nor is he alone in this insistence. In the latest issue of National Review, Commentary associate editor Noah Rothman asks and answers: “What did we get out of an exercise that cost America over 2,400 lives and nearly $1 trillion? First and foremost, zero major foreign-directed terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the generation that has elapsed since September 11.” Besides the fact that “over 2,400” is a rather odd (though not technically false) way of saying “over 6,200“—not to mention the casualties of the GWOT outside of Afghanistan and collateral civilian deaths in both—such suggestions are as reprehensible as they are illogical. “The high cost of war”—much higher than its apologists seem to realize—can hardly be justified on the grounds that maybe, if 929,000 people had not met early deaths, something bad might have happened.

The fact that a generation of adults is rising for whom such fear-mongering does not have the same pathetic magnetism it might exercise on their parents is, in addition to a historical inevitability, a definite social good.

In the Washington Post this week, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne suggests that “We best remember 9/11 by moving beyond it“—“beyond the hubris that made us think we could remake the world by force, beyond the ever-present temptation to use a catastrophe to justify projects already in mind before disaster struck.” The folly in Iraq and the pivot to nation-building in Afghanistan, as well as many of the other catastrophes of the last 20 years, are in large part the results of “a high of national self-confidence after the collapse of the Soviet Union [which] encouraged talk of a ‘unipolar world’ in which the United States confronted no serious competitors.” The impact of 9/11, therefore, “was amplified by the contrast between our experience of sudden vulnerability and a mood shaped by a long period of relative peace and nearly a decade of roaring prosperity.”

No such contrasts exists for the generation with no memory of the unipolar moment—Charles Krauthammer’s now infamous term for the brief stretch from roughly the time my parents were in college to the time I was a toddler. The only America we have ever known is one knocked viciously off its high horse. Our very first consciousness of politics is likely to have taken form around, or in the aftermath of, the 2008 financial crisis. By the time we became aware of them, to say nothing of the time we might have signed up, the neocons’ wars had been widely recognize for what they were. The easy liberalism and moderate prosperity of the last century’s sunset years were merely things talked about by the grown-ups in bouts of nostalgia. We were—to reference one of the first great films of my teenage years—born in the darkness.

Such is the way of the world. We do not share the same hubristic faith in globalized capitalism that stretched from Reagan through NAFTA to the comedy of Bushonomics and the recession of ’08. We have seen that the costs of war are high and the rewards are low—ISIS, an undeniable reaction to American imperialism, popped up when we hit high school—and we do not share the older generations’ emotional impetus to support it. We have spent our entire lives under an absurd and obtrusive security and surveillance state, and again do not share the need to justify it that our elders might. We have a sober view of America and her place in the world because it has been forced on us.

This is not to say that the youngest generation is without faults of its own. Both the decadence of the boomers and the reaction of the millennials were key to our formation, and neither in particularly fruitful ways. Sobriety is a slippery slope to pessimism. The turbocharging of the sexual revolution has left many, while dovish, otherwise disturbed. All these and more are reasons for caution and requirements for reform. Nobody, even the most militant basher of boomers and millennials, is advocating a full-scale gen-Z neontocracy.

But, 20 years on, it is high time to enter a post-post-9/11 reality, to shirk the excess of the past two decades and realize that the world Charles Krauthammer thought Reagan had bequeathed him was never really here, and certainly is not now. Sooner or later, and one way or another, the generation formed after the fall is going to make that happen. If there is any good sense left in the American polity, when that day comes we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.

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