For many students, 9/11 is more historical event than emotional memory

Manhattan skyline following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Photo via iStock

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. The Apollo moon landing on July 20, 1969. The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. The dates and the events are seared into the memories of the generations who lived through them.

For most, there’s a more recent event—a coordinated terrorist attack on the United State on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Sunday will mark the 15th anniversary of the attack.

This year, for some of Northeastern’s youngest students, however—indeed, for freshmen everywhere—memories of that day are vague, if they exist at all.

Many of this year’s college freshmen were just 3 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. Evan White, CIS’20, is one of them.

Photo via iStock

Photo via iStock

“As it’s gotten further away, it’s started to be less direct,” he said of the anniversary. “For me, it’s more like (the anniversary of the attack on) Pearl Harbor,” White said, explaining that it’s an anniversary he recognizes for its tragedy, but one that doesn’t generate a strong emotional response.

Northeastern professor and co-director of the Security and Resilience Program, Daniel Aldrich, made a similar comparison when asked generally about the 9/11 anniversary for those who were too young to remember the event.

“Every generation has an event—typically a highly publicized tragedy—to which that cohort can relate,” he said. “For example, my parents had the assassination of JFK. My generation had the Challenger explosion. Younger people in the U.S. had 9/11. Many people born after 9/11 can only relate to it in the same way that we may relate to D-Day during World War II or the anniversary of Pearl Harbor: a distant event to which it is challenging to have a personal, emotional connection. The meaning of these events continues to be reproduced and challenged through history books, plays, and other cultural narratives.”

Gabi Kussmal, ’21, said she and her twin brother were also 3 years old on 9/11.

“I don’t have any memories of it personally,” she said. “My mom has said she told us a little bit about it on the way home from daycare that day, but I don’t remember it.”

Kussmal said it wasn’t until the 10-year anniversary in 2011 that she fully grasped the significance of the events of that day.

“I remember watching TV that day where they were showing video from 9/11 and reading the names of everyone who was lost that day, and that’s when it really hit me—the scale of it,” she said.

In many ways, post-9/11 America is vastly different from pre-9/11 America. Airport security, for example, changed drastically. Dozens of pieces of 9/11-related legislation were passed as part of the Patriot Act in October 2001. Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act the following month, a move that federalized airport security and created the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA.

“Museums, markers, and other cultural institutions are our collective attempt to make sense out of violence and death and to help the survivors regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.”

To that point, Aldrich noted, “9/11 had an impact far beyond our emotional and social states then, and now. It caused our federal government to completely reorganize its defense and disaster agencies, creating the large agency that we still encounter at the Department of Homeland Security.

“We also see the creation of a number of markers and events, ranging from movies to memorials, that help us make sense of the tragedy,” he said. “Museums, markers, and other cultural institutions are our collective attempt to make sense out of violence and death and to help the survivors regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.”

Max Abrahms, assistant professor of political science in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, is a terrorism expert. He noted a shift in how Americans react to terrorist events over the past 15 years.

“There’s been an evolution in how Americans understand how we should respond to terrorism,” he said. “Right after 9/11—or shortly after—we invaded Iraq though it was unrelated to the 9/11 attacks. Part of that response was emotional, and I think Americans have become wiser about how we should respond to terrorism.”

For most, these changes likely mark a clear cultural “before” and “after” line, but for students like White, Kussmal, and others, there is no “before.”

“I think the biggest way it’s impacted me is with flying,” said Aisling Dennehy, S’19, who was 5 years old in 2001. “Growing up, airport security has just always been how it is now—you take your shoes off, all that.”

Photo via iStock

Photo via iStock

Noting airport security himself, White said, “We just accept that’s how it is.”

International students, too, have their own memories of the tragic day.

“I was at home in Venezuela at the time, but I remember I had a cousin who was supposed to be leaving New York that day,” recalled Daniela Hernandez, AMD’21, who was 4 years old. “No one could get a hold of him and I just remember my family being frantic. I remember the TV was on, but mostly I just remember my family being really worried.”

Miguel Palacio, E’18, was 7 years old and at home in Guatemala on 9/11.

“I remember being with my mom watching it on TV and I couldn’t understand what was happening,” he said. “I just remember seeing the buildings and seeing smoke, just those images.”