For most Americans, 9/11 still seems like it happened just yesterday. To an increasing number of young people it’s almost as if it never happened.
As we commemorated the decade-and-a-half anniversary over the weekend, many observed that there is now a generation 15 years removed from the tragedy who simply don’t remember it, either because they were too young or were born after 2001. The anniversary doesn’t have the same emotional impact for them, understandably, as it does for the rest of us.
This is probably how those who lived through Pearl Harbor felt about young Americans of the late 1950s and ’60s. No doubt some from the Vietnam generation thought the children of the 1980s and ’90s couldn’t comprehend just how damaging that war was to our national psyche.
Can teenagers and young adults today really comprehend what it felt like to see innocent citizens—everyday working men and women simply going about their daily lives—attacked randomly and viciously in spectacular fashion as the entire nation watched?
I avoid those images as much as possible. The planes hitting the towers. People falling from buildings. I don’t like seeing them not because I want to forget, but because I never will. I was 27 on 9/11.
I can’t imagine being in New York City that day. I can’t fathom one of the victims being my family member. Hate is not a word I would use liberally, but I hate that 9/11 happened and I hate the people who did it.
How could I not?
In July, U.S.-led forces in Syria carried out “airstrikes at dawn [that] pulverized entire families, including young children — families that were fleeing Islamic State militants but were instead mistaken for being those very fighters.”
“Depending on whom you ask,” reported the Washington Post “the number of bodies found in the rubble is 56, 85, 160 or 212. Pictures of the mangled bodies, covered in dust, are a testament to the carnage.”
“People are now full of hatred for the SDF,” said Jassem al-Sayed, a Syrian politician from Manbij. SDF stands for Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed rebel group who carried out the strikes.
“The number of human losses in the area is rising dramatically,’ Rami Abdulrahman, founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told ABC News.”
“The coalition has to stop targeting neighborhoods with civilians.”
These are the first two stories I found in a Google search of civilian casualties due to U.S. actions abroad. But I know they happen with some frequency in war-torn countries where the U.S. is involved militarily. I also know how I would feel about the deaths of my family members, or countrymen, who were killed, even if unintentionally.
How should we expect the families of foreign civilian drone victims—hundreds if not thousands—carried out under the Obama administration to feel? How about the victims of the bombing of an Afghanistan hospital by the U.S. in April? Or the thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq since 2003? This column isn’t long enough to list all of these types of examples.
Most Americans are generally unaware that these tragedies are an everyday reality for many foreigners. Occasionally, some striking image might break through to capture outsiders’ attention, like when so many hearts went out to the little Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh last month—bloodied, dazed and confused—a victim of Russian airstrikes.
There is no equating barbarous intentional terrorism with the unintentional violence and civilian casualties that are part of the reality of war. But the psychological damage for those affected is similar. When innocent people are lying in piles of rubble, the intentions matter little.
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, it bothers us, rightly, that a new generation of Americans might not comprehend the utter horror of that day. The world changed.
Something that terrible should be understood. We want it to be.
But younger Americans will probably never get 9/11 in the way that those who lived through it do. It’s something that happened far away from their life experience. Another time, another place, another world.
Distance makes things seem not as real—even when it’s precisely the kind of reality we should strive to understand most.