Friday, May. 06, 2011

Viewpoint: The Myth of the "9/11 Generation"

My final year of high school lasted several times longer than it should have. On 9/11, I was a senior at Stuyvesant, which is located four blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center. Along with my classmates and teachers, I fled up the West Side Highway as the towers fell. Weeks later, when we were allowed back on campus, I didn't realize that I would be returning to the neighborhood again and again during the coming years. But in the thick of college, the sight of a smokestack would send me back to Hudson Street, where I'd gaped at the dust cloud after evacuating the school. The scent of a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner—melting rubber—would conjure Chambers Street during the months when Ground Zero blazed. For years, my present kept giving way to my past, and my temporal Slip'n'Slide always shot me down to 2001.

Bin Laden and I never met—the first time I heard his name spoken, by a friend's grandmother in whose apartment I had taken refuge that morning, I misheard it as "Ben Lauden"—but we established a complicated relationship just the same. I blame him for, in addition to much larger crimes, bringing my childhood to its cataclysmic close. Yet I feel ambivalently, uncomfortably grateful for having experienced 9/11: I don't know who I'd be without it. It occupied the majority of my thoughts for three years, and my tour of trauma and recovery, with all their hills and troughs, introduced me to an emotional landscape I hadn't known existed. During my time there, I came to appreciate the consolatory power of literature. In college, I became an English major; in graduate school, I wrote my thesis on the poetry that emerged in response to the attacks. While I would likely have traveled a literary route even without 9/11 as my starting point, I doubt my feelings about literature—I'm now a book critic—would have developed their particular nuances.

I dwelled so long on 9/11 partly because I had few people to discuss it with, which was in turn because few people I knew seemed to react to it as I did: by concluding that the tragedy had altered everything; by fearing that—if we ever had been safe—we weren't anymore. (My isolation felt all the more strange given that these ideas were, supposedly, so common as to be cliché.) The diversity of our responses gives the lie, I think, to the term "9/11 generation": in the wake of the attacks, some of us enlisted in the army and some enrolled in Arabic programs, but most in my circle seemed indifferent. If pressed, my peers might agree at most that 9/11 set a dark mood that foreshadowed the baffling political, economic, and military developments of the next decade.

Our reactions to Bin Laden's death have been just as various as our responses to 9/11. While the loudest among us cheer, others fret. They doubt we're truly safer without Bin Laden. They worry about retaliation, and about the many terrorists who still wish us harm. They point out that delight in death is a terrorist trademark. They point out that ten years is, in fact, a long time. On Facebook—that supposed bellwether of my generation's moods—two friends have posted this quotation from a teacher in Pennsylvania (which was misattributed, as it rocketed around the Internet, to Martin Luther King, Jr.): "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." I agree. While I recognize the value of eliminating Bin Laden, I can't feel happy about his demise.

What about those who do rejoice? Perhaps they're celebrating because they believe Bin Laden's death has made us safer, or because they're proud of our intelligence forces, or because—by virtue of his hatefulness—Bin Laden enabled us to do something that might feel purely good. Perhaps, too, they celebrate because they need to celebrate. Ours is an uneasy generation: inheritors of a troubled economy, we search for jobs, buckle under debt, and observe our schismatic government with a distress that can border on helplessness. For some of us, the idea of an American win—any win—is winning indeed.