Monday, September 12, 2011

Losing Our Innocence

Editor's Note: I apologize for not posting this yesterday. I had visitors.
Can you hear when we call?
There where we fall?
Standing our backs against the wall?
Top of our lungs hallelujah?
Where pain and love bleed into one?

-- Mat Kearney, "Down"
When historians and those who lived through it look back on the assassination of President Kennedy, they often use the phrase "loss of innocence" in reference to themselves and the generation of Americans who had their eyes opened to a cynical world that day. As someone who has studied the assassination, I had only an inkling of an idea of what that phrase meant until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Like the generation who lost their innocence November 22, 1963, my generation lost its innocence on 9/11.

As I have written here with the passing of each year since the tragedy, I was a junior in high school preparing for a another day of school when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Unlike most days, I had not turned on the television or radio to listen to while getting ready for school that day. It was not until I was walking down my street to catch the school bus that I even knew that something had happened in New York City. A young man who lived a few houses down from mine asked if I had heard about the planes that hit the Twin Towers. Planes? All I can remember thinking is that one plane could be an accident, but two planes probably could not. Little did we know, as we were continuing our walk to the bus stop, a third plane was hitting the Pentagon.

Something I have always found interesting about human memory is how we each tend to group bits of information and memories together. For example, when thinking about an individual person we are close to, we often may remember several different events about that person and bring them all to mind when recalling that person. The most distinct memories I have about that day are grouped together in what I can only characterize as out of the ordinary happenings. Of course what happened that day was unlike anything that had happened in our history, but I speak of what was happening directly around me. It was out of the ordinary for me to not have listened to some sort of news that morning. It was out of the ordinary for the school bus driver to have on the radio. Once I reached school, it was completely out of the ordinary for the teacher of my first class to have the door open early and the television on. My memory has grouped each of these out of the ordinary happenings into a collective picture of what I did that day.

On the school bus that morning, I learned that just before I took my seat there had been another explosion, this time at the Pentagon. At this time, they could not confirm that it was another plane that hit. Just as I was reaching school, the radio was reporting that the south tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed. I left the school bus that morning wondering what they meant by 'collapsed'. Half an hour later I watched on television as the north tower collapsed. I listened as Peter Jennings said that a plane had crashed near Pittsburgh, a plane most likely headed for the United States Capitol or the White House.

When I speak of my generation losing our innocence, I not only speak of watching in horror that day as this nation was attacked. Surely many in my generation were watching and realizing, as I was, that the large objects falling from the towers were actually people. Surely many in my generation saw those around them crying, people we had all known to be immensely strong. All of these things were part of that day for my generation, but the days that came after were what changed us. My generation signed up with the selective service in the weeks and months that followed. My generation enlisted. And to this day, my generation is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even though there was absolutely no connection between the events of September 11th and Iraq, that lie is how my generation ended up fighting in Iraq, losing life and limb. Like the thousands of Americans who were inspired by President Kennedy to dedicate themselves to public service, 9/11 drove thousands in my generation to military service. My generation fought and continues to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. My generation invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. My generation was deployed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and saw untold horrors, many that could have been prevented by a quicker response. While not all of these things are connected to the men who boarded those planes that September day, all of these things happened because on September 11th my generation found in themselves a sense of responsibility to this nation and rose up in droves, enlisting in the United States military.

The first time I visited Dealey Plaza where President Kennedy was killed, I had this indescribably heavy feeling. As I stood there, four years removed from the events of September 11th, I realized that the feeling I was having was exactly as I felt that September day as I watched in horror as the second tower fell. It was that day, standing under a blue, clear sky in Dallas that I understood completely what a generation of Americans meant when they said that the day Kennedy was assassinated they lost their innocence. On September 11, 2001, we lost ours.

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