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Remembering 9/11 as a Millennial

09/11/2013 05:34 EDT | Updated 11/11/2013 05:12 EST

For most Millennials, life thus far is divided into two distinct components: pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

At the dividing line lies the first news report on the radio or the phone call in which the person on the other end said, "Turn on the TV."

That day, we all watched in horror as the twin towers fell: the mighty pillars hit, the deceptive eye of the storm as they stood, wavering ever so slightly, and the subsequent collapse that took the lives of almost 3,000 people. The towers were symbols of strength and invincibility, but there they were -- literally gone to ashes in a matter of minutes.

In the hours and days that followed, unreality was in the air.

President Bush, speaking through a bullhorn, addressed Ground Zero workers: "I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

He was standing in the midst of the rubble, but he might as well have been standing atop that mystical shining city on a hill. For a moment, the world was binary. There was good and there was evil, and God cannot be neutral.

There was an almost instant nostalgia for the '90s. The decade was hardly idyllic. The dot-com boom and bust, the gospel of greed that continued to govern Wall Street long after Gordon Gekko was past his prime, and a president on trial for lying about oral-sex acts were not the kind of stuff that dreams are made of. But we had our Saturday morning cartoons and Lunchables, Saved by the Bell and Disney films -- none of this new-age motion capture nonsense. Most of all, we had the luxury of not seeing a world end.

And when we look back now, it is there that our songs of innocence rest, forever suspended in time. We were kids, then. Our realities were governed by blissful ignorance. 9/11 forced us to grow up overnight, and growing up was not all that it's cracked up to be.

The two wars that ensued divided and bankrupted the country. If 9/11 -- a date which will live in infamy -- is our generation's JFK assassination, the years of fighting that followed were our Vietnam. While they paled considerably in magnitude, they, too, saw our boys come home damaged and an administration (and the next) unable to finish what they started, and they no doubt decided the zeitgeist of our time. We had and continue to face the economic consequences of the attacks in the forms of unemployment and underemployment. And always, always in the backdrop are the searing images of the trapped jumping to their deaths en masse, the brave men and women charging into the burning buildings.

Last summer, I visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. It was mid-July, and the air was thick and smoggy. The twin Memorial pools were surrounded by bronze parapets inscribed with the names of the victims. Around me, people created rubbings of the names. There were some young kids with their parents -- little boys in pinstripes, and their sisters in pink flip-flops -- tapping away at their iPads. 9/11 was part of their parents' history, the connections indirect, the relevance minimal.

A lone callery pear tree stood in the plaza -- a "survivor tree." It was lifeless and badly burned at the time of its recovery at Ground Zero, but today it towers above all other trees at the Memorial, sprouting leaves and blossoms. There is a powerful image near the end of Kazuo Ishiguro's masterpiece, Never Let Me Go, in which the protagonist envisions a "spot where everything [she'd] ever lost since [her] childhood had washed up, and [she] was now standing here in front of it..." If such a spot exists for any of us as we continue to interrogate our ghosts in search of meaning, it would be underneath the tree's rustling canopy.

9/11 Anniversary