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Their View: Looking back — and ahead — 19 years after 9/11

Their View: Looking back — and ahead — 19 years after 9/11

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Here’s a sobering but useful measure of time: This year’s presidential election (which officially opens next week with early voting in eight states, including Virginia) will include the first generation of voters born after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001.

We actually will have two years of voters born after that awful morning — 19-year-olds born in the latter part of 2001 and 18-year-olds born in 2002.

The voting age has changed over the years, but it took until 1964 before we had a generation of voters born after Pearl Harbor. It would have taken that long whether the voting age was 18 like it is now or 21 like it was then. The point remains the same: Think of how much the world had changed in that time.

Now contemplate how much the world has changed — or not— since the date we remember simply as “Sept. 11.”

There was no TikTok then — it was founded in 2012.

There was no Snapchat then — it was founded in 2011.

There was no Instagram then — it was founded in 2010.

There was no Twitter then — it was founded in 2006.

There was no Facebook then — it was founded in 2004.

There wasn’t even any Myspace, a platform whose time has come and gone — it was founded in 2003.

On that morning, we gathered in front of an old-fashioned technology: televisions. If the same horror were to revisit us again, we’d all be looking at our phones. Feel free to think about what kind of information — and misinformation — would get shared that way.

We live in a very different world than the one that existed in 2001 — and yet in many ways we still live in 2001, or at least the world that 2001 made. Less than a month after Sept. 11, 2001, Americans cheered news that the U.S. had begun bombing Afghanistan. Nearly two decades later, we’re still in Afghanistan, with no realistic prospects for extricating ourselves lest we create the same vacuum that terrorists took advantage of before. On the other hand, we still have military bases in Germany and Japan, too — the difference is we’re not still fighting those countries, we’re defending them.

The phrase “homeland security” did not exist 2001 — that sort of militarized domestic security was an exotic concern for other countries, not us protected behind two oceans and a nuclear arsenal that could destroy the world many times over. Or so we thought. Soon there was a new federal department with that name. Then that seemed a prudent way to defend ourselves against al-Qaeda; this year we saw agents from that department deployed on the streets of American cities, but not against foreign jihadists.

It’s always difficult for one generation to try to imagine what another generation sees, but some things can still be described factually.

Someone born in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 would have grown up in a world where a “mass casualty event” is not as shocking as it is to those of earlier generations. The backgrounds and motives of jihadists and school shooters may be very different — but not really. Random slaughter is random slaughter. In 2001, the worst mass shooting in the United States outside of wartime was the 1991 shooting at the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. Now that shooting — which killed 23 innocents — is “merely” tied for sixth place. Of the 26 worst mass shootings in the whole history of the United States, the generation born since Sept. 11 has seen 15 of them. That generation has seen a world where we are more likely to be massacred by our fellow citizens than killed by foreign terrorists. What might that do to your perspective?

Over the 19 years since Sept. 11, we, as a nation, have been lucky: We haven’t seen another day like that. Other nations have, just not on the same spectacular scale. Madrid had its train bombings. London had its bus and train bombings. Mumbai had four days’ worth of attacks on hotels, restaurants and other public places. Paris had its concert hall attack. We’ve certainly had other jihadist-inspired terrorist attacks on American soil (one of them carried out by a man who grew in Roanoke; Army doctor Nidal Hasan was convicted of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009) but they’ve been overshadowed by a different type of terrorism — racist domestic terrorism. “More deaths were caused by domestic violent extremists than international terrorists in recent years.” That statement, by the way, came from the FBI — specifically the bureau’s assistant director for counter-terrorism as she testified earlier this year before a congressional committee. “In fact, 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic violent extremism since the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995,” Jill Sanborn told Congress. For the generation born after Sept. 11 the face of terrorism isn’t some Middle Eastern man who professes religious-based violence against the West, it’s a white man in the United States. Like we said, what might that do to your perspective?

We’re now engaged in a presidential campaign where issues of national security so far figure far less than they have in other elections. In 2004, the first presidential election after the terrorist attacks, polls showed that terrorism was voters’ top concern — even more so than the war in Iraq. Now terrorism has almost fallen out of view. A survey earlier this year by Climate Nexus, in conjunction with Yale and George Mason universities, found voters ranked it as only their 9th concern. When voters are asked an open-ended question about their top concern as opposed to picking from a list of issues, terrorism often doesn’t even show up at all. Americans are known for many things. One of those is our short memories. Other cultures sometimes have collective memories that are too long for their own good, festering over slights and insults and perceived injustices from centuries ago. Americans, though, often go about their business, blithely unaware of both the past and the present. Ideally we will never face another day like the one we had 19 years ago today. The problem is that somewhere in the world are those who would surely like to repeat it.

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