9/11 in hindsight

William Witwer

Historians are in a constant process of re-evaluation, a benefit that only comes with time (aka hindsight). When tragedies occur that reverberate throughout our whole nation, historians evaluate and re-evaluate their effects.

Sept. 11 changed America in a profound, panic-inducing way. It started two wars and booted us uncomfortably into the modern age. But the significance of the attack was missed almost entirely by those of us too young to understand.

In hindsight, we have come to comprehend 9/11’s earth-shattering effect on the U.S. implicitly, through behavioral osmosis. I’m talking, of course, about the first-years, those who were in the fifth grade at the time of attack, those of us who couldn’t understand the implications of the crumbling towers when they fell. My friend, first-year Alex Brott, was also in fifth grade when it happened and can remember the day fairly well.

“I was just watching TV: it might have been Nickelodeon,” said Alex. “It cut to the news, pictures of the initial coverage of the first world trade center. I remember just being like ‘What the fuck, my cartoons are gone!’ . . . I definitely didn’t get it at all.”

I didn’t get it either. I only vaguely remember that day, can only dimly remember the adults crying and gasping, getting the day off from school, the fear and solidarity that gripped the country in the ensuing months. My parents were of course upset, which in turn upset me, but I was easily calmed by the fact that my life did not change one iota. Some people our age actually felt something, however.

“I was convinced every single person sitting next to me was a terrorist,” said sophomore Zoe Kunkel-Patterson. “It was a stressful time.”

I never felt scared in the least. Over time, after reading countless news articles that referenced 9/11, after watching people react over and over, I got some sense of the cultural importance the attacks had on us. After Ward Churchill was publicly hated for offensively declaring the victims “little Eichmans,” I saw how affected our country really was.

But there was never one moment where everything changed: I never had any kind of epiphany of hindsight. It was a process. This is different from our day-to-day moments of hindsight: those described in my last column.

Recently, a foreign friend of mine challenged some of my preconceptions about the horror of that day and even managed to offend me in the process. But what she said has stuck with me. Her argument in a nutshell was that America has sensationalized the tragedy of the attacks, that 9/11 was certainly a sad event but that the rest of the world suffers much more all the time and doesn’t make a big fuss about it.

In hindsight, I realize that my response was emotional (I raised my voice a little) and not rational, that I failed to even consider the possibility that she was right. But I also realized that most of my understanding of 9/11 came from behavioral osmosis, from hindsight. Maybe she’s right; maybe she’s wrong. The point is, I have assimilated emotions from all over the United States.

In this way, 9/11 for me was totally impersonal: I knew it was sad but never mourned. In hindsight, I realize what didn’t make sense to me before, but I don’t have the emotional rawness that most of America felt. I, and most everyone my age, understand 9/11 in the abstract. Which is a weirdly true concession.

People studying 9/11 will lack even our generation’s mild emotional understanding, like the way I understand Pearl Harbor but don’t care about it. What 9/11 has taught me about the power of hindsight, though, is that it is not necessarily some sudden, immediate revelation, but can actually be a gradual, hidden process. When that process is completed, many beliefs that have formed over time will appear to have always existed.