September 11: waking up a generation to terrorism

By Jennifer Lipman, August 31, 2011

It was Tuesday afternoon and school was out. It had been an odd day. We'd had some kind of 'skills workshop', with the positive outcome that I had no homework. My sister drove us home, music blaring.

As we pulled up, my mum was on the doorstep, a concerned expression on her face. "They've hit the Twin Towers," she said.

I should have been more shocked. I was, later, when I'd watched the looping footage of the buildings collapsing, or people jumping from burning floors without a hope of survival. I woke up even more to what had happened the following month when I visited New York for the first time and saw smoking metal being transported away from Ground Zero and missing person posters staring hopelessly across the city.

But I was 14, more interested in who was at number one in the charts than the number one news story. I didn't have any context for what had just happened.

I knew about terrorism but mostly in the context of Israel, where the Second Intifada had been waging for a year. But Israel was the exception, the only place I went or knew people where such things were real.

There were people who hated us - it turned out quite a few

New York – America – was an exciting place I wanted to visit, not somewhere despised by the non-Western world. War happened in other places. News only occurred in isolated events and really terrible things were consigned to history.

For my generation – the millenials, the kids born in the 1980s - 9/11 was a turning point. Before, our worlds were largely about hope; we'd only experienced peace. Wide-scale tragedy was famine or earthquakes. Things happened because of natural disaster or poverty, not the deliberate actions of man.

After the first plane, that changed. We came of age in an era of uncertainty and pessimism, and developed our views in a climate of fear and polarisation.

There were people who hated us – us and not other people far away; quite a few, it turned out. A few years earlier, I'd seen pro-Palestinian protesters chanting outside the 'Israel 50' celebrations at Wembley but I had little appreciation that Jews outside Israel could also be targets.

We grew up accustomed to posters in stations warning us to report abandoned bags, to being searched at airports for a real reason and not just by Ben Gurion staff. The news bulletins we woke up to talked of war and casualties in both near and faraway places. Bali, Madrid, then London became synonymous with bombs and home-grown extremists.

It became cool to hate America. Chips became Freedom Fries. Islam, until then simply one of the faiths we studied in religious education, became media hate-figure and scapegoat.

And where debates on summer camp or at school had once centred around saving the whales, joining the Euro or animal testing, now we talked about invading Iraq, ID cards and WMDs. We learnt about the Vietnam War in history and found modern parallels.

As a politics undergraduate I studied the pre- and post-9/11 worlds as if they were fundamentally different epochs. In seminars we laughingly dismissed Francis Fukuyama for proclaiming "the end of history" in 1992; how stupid, we said.

It's easy to exaggerate. Part of this was simply growing up; you lose childhood illusions with age. But with 9/11, happening as it did at the start of 24 hour news and online media, we didn't so much grow up as be forced up.

For my generation, every victory and defeat since 9/11 has been framed around that date and discussed in the Manichean language of the war on terror.

When news broke of Osama Bin Laden's death, commentators heralded the end of an era. It certainly felt like one.

Yet among the coverage were reports on the reactions of pre-teens or, rather, the absence of. Some had a vague awareness of the world's most wanted man. But for most, my generation's bogeyman was as much a part of their present as Hitler or Stalin. Real, terrible, known to be someone bad. But from another lifetime.

September 11 is the first event I can remember where I was when I heard about it. For other generations, it was VE Day, the Kennedy or Rabin assassinations or the fall of the Berlin Wall. We can only hope that for the next generation it will be something positive.

Last updated: 4:10pm, September 1 2011