9/11 anniversary: Millennials seek hope in a world defined by terror

“Mike, we got bombed!”

That’s what four-year-old Arthur Wesley remembers his mother screaming to his father on Sept. 11, 2001, as they watched television in their Royal Palm Beach home, and saw one plane, and then another, crash into the World Trade Center in New York.

“I asked her what was going on, and she told me that some Muslim people came to America and bombed New York,” remembers Wesley, now 19, a student in a professional acting program at the Maltz Jupiter Theater and working on his associate’s degree at Palm Beach State University. “I wasn’t really that concerned at first, because my mom told me that the people would be OK. The ambulance would save them.”

In the mind of a 4-year-old, it makes sense to believe that bad things are always thwarted and someone will save the day. But for Wesley, part of the Millennial generation, the events of that quiet September morning 15 years ago forever changed not only that belief, but those about privacy, travel, and how they view themselves and others.

Unlike Americans who reported their sense of security shattered, post-9-11 kids like Wesley say they never had that sense to begin with. And he attributes it directly to the events of that day, which “brought more instability and fear to America throughout the years. You keep your guard up. You watch how you talk to people. You watch out everywhere you go.”

The events of 9-11 “definitively affected the world that Millennials live in,” says Charles Zelden, a professor of history and political science at Fort Lauderdale’s Nova Southeasten University. “It did for all of us, but (with them) there’s a sense of growing up in a world of conflict and emergency for most of their lives.”

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills who’s written two books on terrorism including this fall’s “Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror,” agrees that the September 11 attacks “shattered (Millennials’) trust in the belief that their parents would always look out for them and be able to protect them.”

Zelden says that it’s important to remember that Millennials now range in age from 18-34, encompassing people of different experiences who are considered part of the same group. An event that looms large in the memory of those at the older end of that spectrum has a different effect on those at the younger end.

He cites as a historical example the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For friends and colleagues who were in grade school, he says, “it was a defining moment in their lives. I was born a few months before, and I have no memory of it. It defined memories of the 1960s, but I don’t have a visceral feeling of loss, (like) my colleagues who are 6, 7 years older than me.”

So it is with Millennials and 9-11. Those who were born in the late ’80s and early ’90s “saw it as a major event, because they watched it on TV and responded to the shock of their parents,” he says. “I’m teaching students now who, if they were born (then), have no memory of it. For my current students, it’s affected their lives…but it’s not a kick in the gut.”

Symone Ciencin, of Boca Raton, was a college freshman facing the uncertainty of young adulthood on 9-11. Ciencin, now 33, thinks the attacks affected her age group differently because “we were leaving home for the first time, or being on the verge of it, (which) was already pretty scary. Then to have an event as terrifying and senseless as 9-11 happen in the midst of that puts life into a very acute focus.”

On her own for the first time at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, she’d gotten up uncharacteristically early. “I actually had time to make it to McDonald’s for breakfast before it was over. I remember listening to the radio in my car and the morning show was talking about buildings and planes and explosions, but I figured it was just something about a movie and that I had missed the beginning of the conversation.”

When she got home, there was a voice mail from her father that said “‘Sym, are you watching this? It’s unbelievable, these planes hit the World Trade Center, they are saying it may be terrorism,’” she says. “I finally flipped on the TV at the very moment the second tower collapsed. I sat in front of the TV all day and just hugged a pillow and cried, watching them repeat the footage of the planes hitting the towers, the towers falling down, people running. I will never forget any of those images as long as I live.”

Psychiatrist Lieberman believes that 9-11 has affected not just Millennials’ sense of security but how they view the country and their role in it. While “it has made some more patriotic, for the most part it has made them angry at America and its leaders. They feel cheated out of the American Dream. And it has made Millennials more cynical. (Their) view of mortality has changed because they now believe that their life will be shortened by future terrorist attacks.”

Zelden goes even further, saying that post-9-11 governmental changes including “the Patriot Act and the expansion of the power and authority of the NSA and the belief that ‘They’re spying on us’” might be directly responsible for a Millennial trait that older generations find curious - a seeming lack of importance placed on keeping any aspect of one’s life private, especially on social media.

Zelden says that when he teaches about privacy, his students say “‘What privacy?’ They take for granted that someone is checking in on them, so why not tell the world what you’re doing, if there’s no privacy. Why not be the one who announces it?”

There have been positive traits post 9-11 like an ”openness to cultural diversity and desire to see a lot of the world and help out with the world’s problems outside of U.S. borders,” believes Clark University’s Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology and originator of the theory of emerging adulthood.

“Millennials are more cynical about politics and less reflexively patriotic than their parents or grandparents were, but that only continues a trend that has been going on for decades. Similarly, Millennials are more fearful of a terrorist attack than their counterparts were a generation ago, but that’s true for all of us,” he says.

Paula Bastidas, of West Palm Beach, was 11 years old at the time of the attacks. She is one of the hopeful and culturally open Millennials that Arnett describes, working as an administrative assistant at the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County.

Nonetheless she felt the immediate effects, as a kid helping out in her school’s office and noticing a frantic “line of parents going to pick up their kids. Everyone was very busy and scared that something like that could happen near us.”

It was particularly striking for Bastidas, who had just immigrated here with her family from Colombia in 1998. She thinks “it was definitely different for me than for the peers that were born here, because they understood the meaning of the event right away. I knew it was an act of hate and horror; however, I wasn’t aware how impacting it was until it was explained to me. It just became alarming that things like that could happen here.”

Even with the realization of how their world has changed, both Millennials and those who have studied them think that in some ways, the attacks of September 11 have brought Americans closer out of necessity.

“There’s already enough racism, inequality, and discrimination in our country,” Wesley says. “We have to stick together, love each other through the good and bad times…Is America really the land of the free? Yes, it is! We have to take what’s ours and show…the rest of the world the true meaning of being a human and making the world a better place.”

And 15 years later, Bastidas, now an American citizen, is still hopeful for herself and the children to come - including the daughter she is scheduled to give birth to on September 11.

“Having my first child close to the anniversary date just means that even though there was pain before, there can always be love and joy attached to those dates…as long as there is love.”

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