Ten years ago, I was sitting in a high school science classroom with my fellow seniors, waiting for the morning tardy bell to ring while the muted morning news played on our teacher’s television.
When the image on the screen switched to the image of a smoking tower, we didn’t know how our tender reality was about to change. We watched a plane fly into the second tower and heard our teacher shout, “My God, we’re under attack!” And just like that, our naiveté was branded on us like a scarlet letter. Who would attack us?
A year later I entered college, and our country prepared for war.
Ten years later, I returned to my alma mater, Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, for a screening of My Trip to Al-Qaeda, a documentary based on a one-man play by Pulitzer prize-winning author, screenwriter, New Yorker staff writer and Austin resident, Lawrence Wright.
The play and documentary follow Wright’s experiences reporting on Al-Qaeda, a course of work that culminated in his book for which he won the Pulitzer, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. The screening and an accompanying Q&A session with Wright was one of a series of events at Southwestern marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
This is the first year that my students don’t really have a memory of 9/11. They were in third grade.
I was eager to see how the generation of students currently in college was affected by 9/11, and how they would respond to Wright’s film. Do they feel that chill run down their spine, the one brought on by a fellowship with a moment in history when they see footage from 9/11? Most of them were in elementary school when it happened.
Wright’s film explores Bin Laden’s motivations and builds a framework for understanding how Islamic terrorism emerged in the Arab world. He walks us through his journalistic process professionally and with great honesty, admitting the encounters and interviews that ignited his emotions.
The film summons my own memories of watching news coverage of the war, of kidnappings, of beheadings, and the anger I felt. I wonder, do the present-day college students relate to the fear and helplessness so many of us felt in our dorms, offices and living rooms?
During the Q&A session with Wright, I got my answer. The students’ questions all focused on the future. How have things changed since you wrote the book? How does identity play a role in the conflict? What does the Arab Spring, the recent wave of revolutions and protests, mean for the Arab world? What are your thoughts on the future of Saudi Arabia? They didn’t ask about September 11th.
A number of the students asking questions of Wright are presently enrolled in a political science course on 9/11 and terrorism that Professor Robert Snyder has taught since my own freshman year at Southwestern.
“This is the first year that my students don’t really have a memory of 9/11. They were in third grade,” Snyder told me. I asked if that changed the dynamic of class discussion. “No, not really, because they’ve dealt with the aftermath of it ever since.”
That was a society we had, and that should be our goal once again. Not just defeating terrorism, but recapturing the kind of peace, and tranquility and trust that we once had in our society.
Remembering the horror of 9/11, to share where you were, what you were doing, much like my parents sharing their memory of JFK’s assassination, is a foundation, shared or not, to a greater conversation. There was a learning curve for all of us—young and old—after 9/11, and the past 10 years have been an intense education, much of it driven by fear. And so I ask—and I now hope—do these students remember what it was like before 9/11?
When he was a senior in high school in 1965, Wright told us, he once took a date to Dallas Love Field. A TWA flight had just come in, and they walked into the airport and walked into the plane. They sat in first class while the stewardesses cleaned and then walked up to the FAA tower where they were invited to watch the airplanes land and take off.
“And I bring this up because that world is lost,” Wright said.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about, but I don’t think it should be forgotten. That that was who we were. That was a society we had, and that should be our goal once again. Not just defeating terrorism, but recapturing the kind of peace, and tranquility and trust that we once had in our society.”