My kids were all born between three and seven years after September 11th, 2001. They never knew the world before 9/11: that blissful, post-Cold War era when American global dominance was unrivaled, and when we suffered from now-quaint-seeming anxiety over how to act in a unipolar world where seemingly nothing could challenge our hegemony. Regional conflicts such as those in the Balkans, or the Eastern Mediterranean, seemed at the time the last remaining conflicts, and critical to overcome, but easily within our power to do so.
We had a terrorism problem, sure, but it was a niche problem, handled by a small number of specialists in various national security agencies within the executive branch. It hardly touched most Americans’ lives.
One reason why my post-9/11 babies, and all the others, will never fully comprehend the shock of that day is because they did not live in the pre-9/11 era. A big part of the shock for those of us who were alive at that time, after all, was the brutal awakening we all experienced — justifiably or not — that not everyone in the world wanted to prosper under a beneficent Pax Americana. I know, it seems laughable now, as well as dangerously naive, but believe me, a lot of Americans saw things that way before 9/11.
They might not admit it now, but the general feeling was that we were the good guys, we mostly kept a stable order in the world, and most of the rest of the world appreciated that fact and was grateful for it.
When the first plane hit the north World Trade Center tower in New York, we were surprised and confused. When the second plane hit the south tower, we were shocked, and growing angry. By the time the south tower fell, after a third plane dove into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., we were livid, indignant, and distraught. By the time the north tower fell, and a planeload of brave passengers had brought down Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA, we were enraged and ready to lash out. We collectively had a sense of being unjustly wronged, of “how dare you” outrage, which quickly grew into a white-hot fury that nothing short of invasion and vicious retribution would assuage.
The rest is, of course, 20 years of history, which more or less came to a messy conclusion last month with the hasty pull-out of all remaining American forces from Afghanistan. It is almost like we are at a reset point in the post-9/11 era, a point where it becomes the post-post-9/11 era. China is ascendant, Russia is a thorn in the side of the West, and a lot of the world doubts not only our collective will when it comes to maintaining the international order, but the underlying value of that order itself. Where do we go from here?
I do not have the perfect answer to that question, and practitioners of statecraft far smarter than me will no doubt navigate us through these new waters as best they can. One thing is certain, though: leading the way at the working level over the next two decades will be those post-9/11 babies. They will have a perspective fundamentally different from those of us who came before. They will be manning the oars of state, and while they might not be the captains of the ship of state just yet, they will have a significant influence in which direction that vessel takes. That fact, ultimately, is probably a good thing, notwithstanding its inevitability.
A fresh, post-9/11 perspective might be just the thing we need to go forward from here. Let us all hope that we have instilled in them a respect for the fundamental tenets of the American system: free markets, the rule of law, representative democracy, individual liberty, and a global system underpinned by free and fair trade, as well as a healthy respect for international law. I have my doubts, at times, that we are doing a good job of it across the board — instilling those values — but only time will tell.
For now, though, I will do what I have always done on the 11th of September every year since 2001. I will spend the 11th remembering that day, watching the footage, looking at the images, remembering all the firefighters, first responders, and civilians who perished, and reflecting on what it all meant. It is a burden that those of us who were around and aware on that day live with now. The post-9/11 babies do not share that burden. For that, I am for the first time a bit grateful, a bit jealous, and a bit hopeful. I will once again profess my annual “Never Forget.” But this year, I might do it with a little less conviction than in years past.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
- We remember 9/11. Here’s why we must never forget 9/10
- The nobility of service in a post 9/11 world
- It’s time to revive the legacy of Pat Tillman
- The F-16 pilot who tried to give her life to stop Flight 93 on 9/11
- Former SEAL and CIA officer on what comes next for US, post-Afghanistan
Feature image: U.S. Air Force photo by Denise Gould