Fears of a generation

BY SHAY O'REILLY | MAY 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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“Do you think we’re going to go to war?”

The day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, school was canceled. My 11-year-old self faced the stark September sunlight with a strange uncomprehending shell shock as my mother, a friend, and I sat at the only open restaurant in Arlington, Va. It was hard to enjoy the salsa, but I picked at it as Rebecca wondered if her brother would be drafted and when we’d be back in our seventh-grade classroom.

When the plane hit the Pentagon, I was drifting through the halls of my middle school, 4.6 miles away from the catastrophe, convinced by hearsay and rumor that terrorists had blown up the Statue of Liberty. The glimpses students stole of smoke billowing out of New York City were cut short by a media blackout imposed by the principal to avoid panic. Until I returned home to my tense, silent mother, all I knew was that the teachers were afraid, that people were dead, and buildings were burning.

I don’t know anyone who died. But with the death of Osama Bin Laden prompting new speculation about “the 9/11 generation,” I’m realizing that I am included; 9/11, and the turn America took afterward, shaped me into the person I am.

So why was I numb after Sunday’s announcement that U.S. Navy SEALs had killed Bin Laden? And why did that initial numbness have a bitter aftertaste, in the face of nationwide celebration? Perhaps it’s because my childhood nightmares of jihadis and mad terrorists subsided, leaving me with an all-too-realistic fear of the very American nihilism that the attacks engendered.

The year the towers fell I became a statistic — one of the many Americans who suffered serious psychological aftereffects of 9/11. In one day, Al Qaeda ripped my childlike sense of security away from me; the mental instability in my genes roused from dormancy. After my second panic attack, wracked by interminable night terrors, I began the weekly therapy sessions I would attend for another six years.

In that period of time, I adjusted to an America unlike the wholesome street I’d grown up on, playing baseball with my neighbors. My mother stared grimly at her plate during NPR’s coverage of the aftermath; when they played President Bush’s speeches, she frequently asked my father to turn off the radio, because she “didn’t want to hear it.”

As the same fear I fought nightly grasped the nation, spawning the Patriot Act, the Transportation Security Administration, and Guantánamo, I struggled to reconcile my lingering trauma with the intellectual knowledge that terrorism aims to provoke paranoia. Fear was not a good reason to act, I decided, particularly when those actions betrayed the principles that I was told belonged to my country. Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, and Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side cemented my conviction that bin Laden was not the primary threat to my nation and my person.

I’m not the first to say that we’ve killed the “bogeyman under the bed.” That metaphor is particularly apt: Bin Laden was an exaggerated demon whose real power lay not in his subversive network (a wildly overblown threat) but in his ability to bring out the worst in America. Some cackling vision in a country far away, an enigma of shallow evil posed no true existential threat.

The deeper fears — of inauthenticity, of going wrong, of inadvertently serving a horror wrapped in the trappings of justice, of becoming that which we profess to hate — are not resolved by bin Laden’s death. What we had to fear wasn’t bin Laden and it wasn’t, as the cliché goes, fear itself; it was losing our way.

I’m no longer haunted by nightmares of biological terror attacks. I don’t have episodes of sheer panic. The Pentagon, now, looks like it did in 2000, resting quietly three miles from my parents’ house.

But I still can’t rest easy. I’m not sure about my fellow members of the 9/11 Generation, but the death of the alleged mastermind behind the attacks has assuaged none of my doubts about the country in which I live.

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