I was twelve years old when it happened. Living in Kenya at the time, so it was evening for us, I was at choir practice after school. The mothers used to wait for us in their cars, lined up outside, listening to the radio: they heard it unfold in real time.
Maybe the news report was too confused to make sense of, maybe she just couldn't process it and wanted to talk it over with Dad, maybe she wanted to preserve our innocent, excitable chatterings about the forthcoming choir trip to Europe a while longer; whatever her reasons, our mother didn't tell us until later that night. “Something's happened...”
Of course it was all anyone could talk about at school for the next two days. Did you see the footage on the news? Will there be a war? Could we be collateral damage? (Checking atlases to map air routes from the US to the Middle East, figuring that other African nations to our north were likelier to take a hit...)
By the end of the week, the playground scuttlebutt had moved on to more immediate topics (never borrow a ruler from R; J once saw her using it to scratch her crotch!), but in my life there had been a quiet cataclysm. Before that day, I had never watched, read, or otherwise paid attention to the news; on the Wednesday, I instantly became the news and politics junkie I've been for the past decade.
Talking with some friends this week, I found that most of us had a similarly dramatic awakening to the news, usually at around the same age. Whether it was TWA Flight 800 or Columbine, some horrifying event had left a peculiarly indelible mark on our young consciousness, permanently altering our understanding of the world and our place in it.
Recently I found an old diary entry featuring my initial reaction to 9/11, a short paragraph in a shaky hand. It's an odd mixture of endearing childishness and white-hot fury: a naivete outraged and forever scarred by the realization that humans would actually do something like this to other humans, that atrocities are not the preserve of history class – not something we've as a species outgrown – but are something we still commit on one another.
(The 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi might have been the catalyst for my realizing this, had I been a little more precocious, but at nine I was still more concerned with Polly Pocket than with international terrorism.)
I don't think 9/11 was a direct cause of my seven years as an agnostic – the major impetus, aside from just reaching an age when my critical thinking skills had developed enough to start questioning the beliefs I grew up with, was my close friendship with a girl who had survived the car crash that killed her mother and little sister – but it must have been a contributing factor. When you suddenly live in a world where things like that can happen, all security is gone. A car could kill your family any day. A terrorist could kill you at any time. Can you trust in anything?
I'm indulging in this onanistic little response to the anniversary of a major world tragedy because I don't want to resort to the empty cliches that dog almost every attempt to analyze 9/11 on a national or international scale. No doubt I'm falling prey to cliches of a different sort: the navel-gazing explication of ~What 9/11 Means To Me~ that risks trivializing the tragedy by reducing it to a psychological input for some tedious privileged not-personally-affected westerner. But I'm a member of the 9/11 generation. 9/11, and its aftermath, shaped us and shaped the world we're inheriting. It's our touchstone, our point of contact with one another, our collective awakening to the ugliness humans are capable of: to a sense of our own mortality.