On this 9/11 anniversary, many of us who lived through the event nearly two decades ago find ourselves recalling where we were, how we felt and what we did that day. Some of us remember the friends and family we lost.
But not all Americans pause to reflect on Sept. 11. Americans under 25 are unlikely to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some young people do not even know about them.
I met a San Francisco high school student who had never heard of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Her parents had never told her what happened that day, her public school did not have a civics or government class, and her history lessons ended with the civil rights movement.
This high school student is not alone. Another student told me that she had heard about the attacks from her parents but not from her teachers. She wondered what else her teachers never taught her.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but, if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” the poet Maya Angelou wrote. Will the events of 9/11 — and our government’s reactions to those events — be faced with courage so that they need not be lived again? Not likely, if many people under the age of 25 know little or nothing of what happened that day and how our nation responded.
To be sure, people who were living or working in and around New York City when the terrorists hijacked planes and crashed two of them into the Twin Towers will always remember that morning. And because New York holds a memorial each year on this date, even those who were too young to remember the day have learned about it as they have grown.
Similarly, young people in Washington, D.C., where a plane crashed into the Pentagon, are more likely to have heard of the attacks. And those in rural Pennsylvania — where the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 tried to take the controls from the hijackers, forcing the terrorist pilot to down the plane in an empty field — may have been told the story and might even know that the plane was likely headed for the Capitol or the White House.
But what about young people around the country? Do they know that nearly 3,000 people were killed that day, including more than 400 firefighters and law enforcement officers? Do they know that it was the deadliest foreign attack ever to occur on American soil?
Do they know that it initiated America’s war on terror? Do they know it marked the start of the war in Afghanistan — our longest war ever?
Do they know that 780 detainees from more than 40 countries were held in captivity for years, nearly all without charges, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba? Do they know that 40 of these detainees are still being held there? Do they know about the CIA black sites where captives were waterboarded and otherwise tortured? Do they know the government authorized mass surveillance of Americans’ communications?
Most important, do they know that these things were considered antithetical to American values before 9/11?
Parents should ask their children what they know about the attacks. Teachers should educate their students about the aftermath. Young people should consider how their lives have been shaped by these events.
Sept. 11, 2001, is a day stamped in the memory of those who lived through it. Yet it can only be understood by future generations, and never lived again, if we sit down with our children, our students and our young friends to begin the conversation. As America again remembers and memorializes the events of 9/11, it is time to inform and educate the next generation.