Everyone has their own “where were you when” moment for 9/11. I was in fifth grade on September 11, 2001. It was my final year at elementary school. My school had just moved into a newly renovated building. There was a distinct sheen to the new classroom. I remember it was around 11 am when my dad’s face appeared at the classroom’s door window. I saw his face and — being a child easily enamored with simple things — my first thought was “man, that door looks sooooo new,” followed by “why is my dad here?” I said the latter aloud, which drew the attention of a teacher aide named Mrs. Cody. She was an older woman, with a medical condition that resulted in an enlarged left hand. Years later I would see the movie Hell Boy in theaters and wonder if Mrs. Cody had the same condition as the main character (she did not). I walked over to my dad and felt Mrs. Cody’s enlarged hand touch my shoulder.
“We have to go,” my dad had said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Let’s wait until you’re outside,” Mrs. Cody said in her characteristically calm voice. She knew why my dad was there.
At the time, I was the only kid who was pulled out of class by a parent. Newton, Massachusetts is a very safe and well-off suburb of Boston. I remember it as a town with a non-existent crime rate. The kind of place you could leave your front door wide open all night without considering someone might walk in. As an adult, I don’t think my childlike impression is wholly accurate, but it may explain why so many kids were allowed to continue their day ignorant of the historic events happening alongside multiplication tables. My dad was not inculcated with this culture of safety.
“Do you know the World Trade Center towers?” he asked me, as I sat in the backseat of his signature BMW. He purchased it the year before. I still remember the light tan leather seats.
“No,” I thought to myself, but did not say.
“They’re gone,” he finished.
I didn’t know what that meant. I was nine years old. I had no capacity of the world beyond my 5-minute commute to elementary school. I didn’t know anything about New York City other than what I picked up watching James and the Giant Peach. I definitely didn’t know this moment — me sitting in the backseat of his car, not understanding anything he said — would be imprinted clearly in my brain twenty years later.
My dad and I drove to my older sister’s middle school. He asked me to come with him into the building and I saw my sister’s 7th grade class had congregated in the cafeteria to watch the news on a roll-out television. I remember thinking “I guess adults like my sister get to know what’s going on.” In retrospect, the fact my dad asked me to come with him into the school is an illuminating detail. At nine years old, I had been left alone in a car before, why did he bring me inside this time? Because unlike the community I grew up in, my dad immediately believed there was no ceiling to how bad 9/11 could become over the course of the day. He later told me he took us out of school because he thought if someone were to attack the United States they’d probably attack schools too. For over 100 years this country had never been attacked on its own soil, but over the course of a morning my dad was convinced a wide-scale nationwide attack could be underway right now. When those towers fell in New York, the sense of security in our country was gone. Anything was possible.
The post-9/11 era is defined by an increase in distrust and surveillance of the American public. We lost some civic liberties, but ultimately we lost the narrative of the West’s ascendancy. Between the resignation of Richard Nixon and September 10, 2001, the United States was on top of the world. The lone superpower book-ending what was referred to as The End of History (though memey zoomers claim this piece is largely misunderstood). The United States had its time at the top and it was beginning to end. The subsequent years of misinformed wars, economic crises, and a rise in hyper partisanship were all writing on the wall. This was the beginning of the end.
The United States’ decline in prominence was felt most strongly by my generation — millennials. Occurring alongside the rise of the internet, I remember a distinct turning of the page in history. There was a “before” and “after” 9/11. Before September 11th, I learned how a card catalogue worked at my school’s library. Afterward, everything was digitized. Before September 11th, I didn’t have a single memory where the failures and dangers of the world became apparent to my innocent mind. Afterward, I was exposed to seemingly endless cynicism of America’s morality as a country — something that continues to this day. I can believe these things were not unique to 9/11, and may have happened in my upbringing no matter what. As you get older, you get exposed to more nuance in the world. You challenge the narratives subscribed to by the previous generations and your generation begins to have more sway over discourse. But the post-9/11 era was more than challenging a narrative. It was the dissolution of “grand narratives” in general.
The concept of a grand narrative is a tenet of modernism, a cultural movement that dominated the 20th century. Grand narratives include concepts like “history is progress” or “good defeats evil.” Largely informed by the catastrophic world wars, modernism was the prevailing attitude because the world had survived so much and somehow came out better. Extreme poverty was nearly eradicated, prosperity boomed, and history’s endless grind of war and death had become the long peace. Everything was getting better, according to the grand narrative of modernism.
Modernism was supplanted by postmodernism, a cultural movement whose exact definition has been disputed for decades. It’s amorphous and all-encompassing, but generally a reaction to modernism — specifically a rejection of it. Here’s an excerpt from a book written to describe postmodernism as it has become the de facto cultural underpinning of the West.
“Postmodernism is difficult to define, perhaps by design. It represents a set of ideas and modes of thought that came together in response to specific historical conditions, including the cultural impact of the World Wars and how these ended, widespread disillusionment with Marxism, the waning credibility of religious worldviews in post-industrial settings, and the rapid advancement of technology. It is perhaps most useful to understand postmodernism as a rejection of both modernism — an intellectual movement that predominated through the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth — and modernity — that epoch known as the Modern period, which began after the end of the Middle Ages in which we (probably) still live.”Lindsay, James; Pluckrose, Helen (2020). Cynical Theories. Pg. 21.
Postmodernism has been a cultural force arguably since the 1970s — if not even earlier — but the undeniable postmodern event was when the world watched the lone superpower get blindsided by a dozen guys with boxcutters. You can’t credibly claim to be an untouchable country upon a hill when all of American culture and politics are hijacked by a group of minuscule power and global importance (at the time). This experience is what broke the American spirit of a generation. There was a universal truth, that we believed to be an unquestionable assumption on which everything else stood, and it evaporated over the course of a September morning.
The threads of that narrative have frayed into worldviews that never coalesced into a new global understanding. This wasn’t purely because of September 11th. The ubiquity of the internet and democratization of media platforms resulted in anyone with a computer contributing to the first draft of history — and we’ve gotten some wild first drafts. It is fitting the first event to reap the whirlwind of this historical innovation was 9/11 itself. One of the first viral videos I saw on the internet was Loose Change — which has now been made into a feature-length documentary — suggesting the attacks on September 11th were not perpetrated by terrorists, but instead a false flag “inside job” done by the US Government (this has, of course, been debunked by many people, however social media sites generally deprioritize any traffic related to the documentary or similar conspiracy theories so I can no longer find the multi-hour debunking videos).
This treatment of extreme skepticism in the face of seemingly-obvious facts is a defining attribute of postmodernism and it has been exported to every other thing in existence. Cynicism is now the default cultural attitude. It is easy to imagine how this can be damaging to the soul of people across the world. There are plenty of critics of postmodernism for being an inherently cynical viewpoint of the world, but what’s missed in these critiques is the necessity for this cynicism. After 9/11, the United States’ foreign policy was established on a series assumptions that were simply not true. The terrorists who carried out the attack were not from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden was not in Afghanistan, and there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq. These issues were direct results from 9/11, but the entire story of America’s morality began to unravel. Citizens began to reexamine the assumptions we made as a country. Are we really the best country in the world? Are we the “good guys?” Have things gotten better in the past 50 years? Some of these examinations resulted in needed reform such as gay marriage or reopening discussions on American race relations. Others were simply exposing an ongoing moral catastrophe such as the 2008 financial crisis or the 2016 presidential election.
Twenty years ago, from the backseat of my father’s car, I didn’t understand any of this. I didn’t feel scared or anxious for the future. I had a naïve sense of contentment. I was with my family. We were going home, where I’d play video games and probably order a pizza for dinner. That sense of peace is a relic from the pre-9/11 era and I’m uncertain if kids today ever truly experience it. September 11th ushered in an era of disillusionment. In all the ways 9/11 seems so long ago, before the financial crash, before the tech monopolies, before the presidency of Donald Trump, before COVID-19, it is still the defining event of the modern day. Our country exists in a perennial state of judgement by its own people. We’re still on trial today, and we might continue to be on trial for another twenty years.