All across America, there are classrooms filled with fifth graders who only know the World Trade Center from pictures. They have achieved the final perfection of George Orwell's vision – we have always been at war with Eurasia – because they have never known a world where their country has not been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As with the Towers, some of these children only know a parent from pictures, because that parent was killed in those wars. They know what anthrax is, what an IED is, what WMD stands for. They know about fear, for it was fed to them, literally, with mother's milk. For them, it has always been this way.
These children have never known a country that was not in an economic recession, for their country's economy has been tottering on its feet like a punch-drunk prizefighter for the last ten years. Theirs is a country that has always tapped phones in secret, always imprisoned people without trial or due process of law, always tortured, always lived in a cocoon of fear and hatred that serves to justify virtually any act, no matter how barbarous or criminal or wrong. Politicians, in their world, have always used threats of terrorism to frighten, to control, to change the subject, to win elections, and to make money for themselves and their friends. There are no consequences for such vicious acts. For these children, it has always been this way.
They know about barbecues and baseball games, because those are still here. They know about video games and the internet, about skinned knees and summer vacation, but they also know so many savage things the rest of us consider “new,” things that didn't exist ten years ago which are terrible and strange to us. For them, it has always been this way, and if the rest of us are not very careful, very vigilant, and very active, it will always be this way.
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What will become of these children as they quest into adolescence and then adulthood? Theirs is a world formed by the implication of imminent violence that could strike at any moment, violence that might be hiding in a car, in a backpack worn by a stranger, in an unattended bag on a street corner, in an airplane tracing white contrails across the sky. Are these children being taught to know a lie when they hear it, or will they only grow to know how to march in locked step to the beat of whichever drummer has the largest microphone and the fattest bankroll?
I was a teacher the year these children were born. September 11 was the first day of school, and I was the first person in the building to see what was happening. I bolted from my office to tell the administrators, and then ran to the library storage closet where they kept a television on a rolling cart. Analog TV signals still existed back then, and I was able to find a clear news channel by manipulating the antennas. A crowd gathered behind me, teachers and students alike, to watch the second plane strike, to watch the smoke pour forth, to watch people jumping into that perfect blue sky, to watch as one tower, and then the other, swayed and finally fell.
I know what that day did to me. I know what it did to my students, my colleagues, and my friends. We all have a story to tell about that day. The fifth-graders in those classrooms have no such luxury…and yes, I say “luxury,” because it is a balm to share stories with those who have experienced the same trauma. It puts a frame around the unreason of the event, puts order to the chaos, and reminds us that we are not, in fact, alone in our pain. The fifth-graders in those classrooms, however, live in a world of aftermath. It has always been this way for them, and so there is nothing to talk about.
We adults have indulged ourselves in self-absorption and self-analysis as this wretched anniversary has approached, and this is entirely just and proper. Every newspaper in the country has been carrying stories about those who survived, those who did not, and those of us who have slogged through these last ten years with ashes in our hair and tears on our cheeks. The vast difference between Before and After, to us, is staggering, horrifying, and altogether disorienting even to this day, but we can share it with each other and try, as best we can, to make sense of it all.
For them, for the children of aftermath, there is no such luxury. There is no Before and After, but only Now, and how things are. They are wide open to the lies, to the fear, to the influence and innuendo of low men. They are only ten years old, and they have known horror all their lives. They don't know anything different.
I have been at a loss, lo these last ten years, to figure out exactly what it takes to shake 21st century America out of its well-entrenched somnambulism. I don't think this bit of drivel will serve that purpose any more or less than the rest of the work I have done over the entirety of this foul decade. I ask only this: put aside your own pain on this day, and remember the children who have known only this. Make sure they know, really and truly know, that it has not always been this way, and so it does not always have to be this way.
Whisper to them as they slip into sleep, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
In this, we are, all of us, saved.