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The Post-9/11 Generation

detail of 9/11 Memorial, with white rose
9/11 Memorial, New York City. Photo by M!G Photography.

The rest of my career will be spent working with people who are too young to remember anything at all about Sept. 11, 2001.

My youngest colleague, whom we just hired as a part-time assistant in our Fort Lauderdale, Florida office, was only two months old that day. I have worked with entertainers who were not even born at the time, and others who were preschoolers.

I suppose today’s young people relate to 9/11 much the way I relate to Dec. 7, 1941. I always note the date but I have never shed a tear over it. Because I was born in 1957, it happened to someone else. Gettysburg and the Titanic happened to someone else. I sympathize with victims of those mass tragedies, but there have not been many moments in my life when I really felt those events. Those moments only come when I encounter a gravestone or an artifact that turns “someone else” into a flesh-and-blood fellow human being.

But when I go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., or to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan, the sadness is as alive as the relatives who stand alongside me. The crowd always contains children who lost parents, spouses who did their best to carry on, siblings who could not grow old with a brother or sister, and a shrinking supply of fathers and mothers who never filled the chasm that was opened. When a middle-aged woman leans on the wall in Washington while rubbing a copy of the name of her lost father, it is an act so intimate that observing it makes me feel as if I am invading her privacy, right in the middle of the National Mall.

Dates like Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 have their familiar rituals – the tolling of bells, the reading of names, the laying of wreaths, the official ceremonies and condolences the nation offers to the survivors. We retell the stories of suffering and sacrifice and heroism, so the next generation grows up knowing what happened. Knowing something doesn’t translate automatically into feeling it, however. It comes more easily for me when I translate it into more personal terms.

My father was 15 when Japanese forces attacked the U.S naval base on Oahu, Hawaii. As soon as he turned 17, in May 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. He was practically the smallest recruit in his basic training class in Newport, Rhode Island. He saw action offshore at Normandy, then transferred to the Pacific theater. In between those two assignments, he met my mother at a Halloween party in New York City in 1944. My existence is truly a matter of chance.

My brother and I were raised in the Bronx. After attending college in New England, my brother became a police officer in Connecticut. He never sought to return to New York City, which is why he was about 100 miles from the World Trade Center on 9/11. The fatalities at Ground Zero that day included 23 city and 37 Port Authority police officers, along with 343 firefighters and paramedics.

My niece was born eight months later. My brother, who retired after 27 years on the Middletown police force, has recently enjoyed taking his daughter on her first college visits. There are other first responders’ sons and daughters who were born around the same time as my niece, but who will not get to tour campuses with their parents. We have watched these children grow up on television every year, reading the names of parents who will never see them go to college, find a job, get married or start a family.

Some of my young friends may not even know that Rudy Giuliani was not always Donald Trump’s lawyer. On Sept. 10, 2001, he was the mayor of New York City, and not very popular in many circles. He was perceived as arrogant and divisive. He was especially unpopular in minority communities. These facts will probably strike them as unsurprising.

But on Sept. 11, he became “America’s mayor.” It may seem hard to believe now, but in that brief period after 9/11, Democrats liked Giuliani just about as much as Republicans. He guided the city, and to some extent the country, compassionately and efficiently through the crisis and the early stages of the recovery.

The people who are too young to remember 9/11 are also too young to remember a time when it did not seem we were always vilifying someone who doesn’t look, vote, sing, think, salute the flag or otherwise act the way we think they should. I hope they never live through anything like 9/11, but I think those of us who did can pass along something worthwhile from our experience. For today, at least, I suggest we speak a bit more softly to one another, act a bit more kindly, and bear in mind that the things that divide us are far less important than the things that don’t.

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