It has now been a generation since 9/11. Pew defines the Baby Boomers as those born from 1946 to 1964, Gen X from 1965 to 1980, and the Millennials from 1980 to 1996. So if a "generation" is around 15 to 18 years long, then we are now a generation's length of time past 9/11.
Moreover, now that the memories of 9/11 are 18 years old, then starting today, children will be born to adults who were not yet born when the Twin Towers came down.
What does it mean for a memory to reach adulthood?
- 18 years after the John F. Kennedy assassination, Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded outside the Washington Hilton.
- 18 years after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Dwight Eisenhower was in his second term in office.
- 18 years after the (1929) stock-market crash that marked the start of the Great Depression, the United States had won WWII, the Baby Boom was getting started, and the economy was getting set for takeoff.
So it is fair to ask: Do we treat the memory of 9/11 like an adult? What does it mean to do that?
- Are we making the same kinds of mistakes that we made before, just as in the cases of Reagan and Kennedy?
- Are we putting experienced leaders to work, like putting Eisenhower in the Oval Office?
- Are we more resilient, more influential, and more optimistic, like we were 18 years after the Great Depression began?
Commemoration and solemnity are good and proper. But it's also good and proper to ask whether we're merely coping or whether we've grown from the experience.
In a lot of ways, I fear we are still merely coping -- we've never really left our war footing from that day. I think it's unhealthy when it means we subject ourselves to unchecked scrutiny, whether that's in the security line at the airport or out in the wider world. It's not a sign of growth that we're still fighting over whether cybersecurity is all that important (remember that part of what made 9/11 so shocking was that it was a novel attack vector -- hijackers had never crashed airplanes into US buildings like that before); if we're fixated on yesterday's weapons, we aren't going to be systemically safer.
But an even bigger and probably more dangerous shortcoming of our coping is that we've never really come to terms with what this commitment requires of us militarily. We smacked a label on it and called it the "Global War on Terror", as though that was adequate.
The problem is that terrorism is just a tactic. It's not a territory to be captured, not an ideology to be overrun, not a defined enemy of any sort. It's a tactic that has been around for millennia, and probably will remain for more. You can't win a war against a tactic.
What we have is more like a chronic health condition, and it's one we mostly throw military force at trying to overcome. Its very persistence robs us of a sense of "winning", and that makes it too easy to forget. Yet the deployments continue, and in some form or another they're practically certain to continue indefinitely.
In some ways, it's no more likely that we'll "win" a GWOT any more than someone "wins" a battle with Type I diabetes. But it's possible we will successfully contain, mitigate, and reduce the harm done by terrorist groups, and that requires a different mindset and different expectations than thinking we're going to have some denouement like storming the beaches of Normandy. And we're going to do much of it on the backs now of fighting forces born after the conflict came to our soil. 9/11 now really is pre-history to the people studying it in school.
Part of adulthood is learning to face facts as they are. 9/11 will always be with us. But we also owe it to the post-9/11 generation now taking a seat at the adults' table to have a frank national accounting for what is our place in the world today, and what we ought to expect for outcomes and what sacrifices ought to be made to get there.