Editor's note: Kyle Smith wrote this analysis of the impact of Sept. 11, 2001 for Newsmax magazine's 10th anniversary commemorative edition. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, click here.
AS SOON AS JENNIFER TRAUL graduated from college, the Naples, Fla., native felt drawn by big city lights and moved to New York City. She arrived there the first week of September, 2001.
A few days later she went out for drinks with a friend who was excited at landing a job at Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial firm on floors 101 through 105 in the One World Trade Center tower in Lower Manhattan.
On 9/11, Traul was shocked to learn that her friend was missing. She eventually heard that all 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who had been in the company offices when a jetliner crashed into the building a few floors down had died.
Her friend’s second day on the job was his last day on earth.
Traul spent the next few years building a career as a chef and later in the wine business, but as wars raged in Afghanistan and Iraq, she realized something was missing.
Although none of her family was in the military, and the notion of a military career had never crossed her mind, “I just wanted to be more of a presence in things,” she says, “to do something that had an impact, something bigger.”
She joined the Navy, obtaining a commission through Officer Candidate School. Her one request: to serve on the USS New York, which was built in part with steel from the World Trade Center’s wreckage. “It just felt like that was where I needed to be,” says Ensign Traul, now 32.
For her and millions of other young Americans who came to age with the images and events of 9/11 seared into their minds and souls, the world will never be quite the same.
When news broke of Osama bin Laden’s death, these were the youthful throngs who poured into the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C., waving American flags and chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Finally, the terrorist boogeyman who had so brutally hijacked their lives a decade earlier had been vanquished.
Sociologists and political scientists are likely to spend decades trying to assess how the 9/11 generation was forever changed when America’s presumed invulnerability imploded before their eyes.
Young Americans rejected what many scholars viewed as the apathy of the generation that preceded them, and answered duty’s call.
Some defined giving back as volunteering to become firefighters or teachers or contributing to charities. Many others joined the military as a direct result of 9/11, and more than a few gave their lives.
Army Lt. Col Kurt Schlichter of Manhattan Beach, Calif., is a case in point. An infantryman who faced hostile fire on many occasions, Schlichter served in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom in Kosovo. “I’ve spent a great deal of my life trying to keep jagged metal objects from piercing my skin,” he says, but the young troops he shepherds today have a different view of danger. “In the 1990s, people [in the Army] said, ‘I’d like to get some money for school.’ They didn’t expect to fight. After 9/11, these guys know it. They seek it.” He adds with pride, “There’s a real feeling of service out there among a certain group of Americans.”
Young Americans have come to a realization. “Every generation has to grow up,” says Nick Fandos, a Harvard freshman. “Most of us were not directly affected by the attacks or the wars that followed, but the shadow of terror and uncertainty is perhaps even more frightful to a young person.”
That impact was so profound, some experts believe, it may help account for the rise of social media. Research supports the idea that Generation 9/11 is more connected than any to come before.
After all, the desperate search to learn the whereabouts and condition of loved ones was the national fixation in the aftermath of the attacks. Impromptu message boards sprung up in New York City plastered with missing-person posters whose headlines were anguished pleas of separation:
“Have U Seen My Husband?”
Message boards and cellphones became the indispensable tools in the aftermath of 9/11, as families tried to reach out to loved ones.
There is a measurable surge in young people for repaying America for its blessings. According to the 2010 Millennial Donors Study of 3,000 adults under 35, 93 percent have given to nonprofit groups despite a weakened economy. Nearly 8 in 10 have volunteered.
Pat Somers, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is conducting a study of the effects of 9/11 on today’s college students. After 50 interviews, she reports four long-term effects: global awareness, patriotism/political involvement, civic engagement, and choice of career or livelihood. A third of the students in Somers’ study said they had strengthened their level of civic engagement.
At least 1 in 5 of the students sur-veyed said they had completely altered their career path because of what happened on that terrifying day.
Zach Laychak, 19, is a University of Arizona sophomore from Virginia whose father David, a civilian budget analyst, was killed in the Pentagon attack on 9/11. Laychak has interned with the Washington, D.C., police department. He’s considering a career in law enforcement. And like so many of his generation, he will never take America for granted.
“Every single day I’m happy and proud to be an American,” he says. “Because I’ve traveled overseas, I know that Americans have freedoms other countries can only dream about. The people who died on 9/11 died protecting those freedoms.”
Will Ditto, a 25-year-old aide working on Capitol Hill, joined the crowd that gathered in front of the White House on the night bin Laden’s death was announced. “It’s huge,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a great day to be an American.
Kyle Smith writes about culture and current events for The New York Post.
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