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A special hourlong episode of WGLT's newsmagazine Sound Ideas. These stories originally aired Sept. 10, 2021, near the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Young Adults On 9/11: A Second Generation Feels Terror's Trauma

Jack Alkire
Emily Bollinger
New York's 9/11 Memorial honors victims of the attacks.

Many Illinois State University students were too young or not born yet during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. These young adults only came to know about the attacks through education and societal influence. It's the second generation to feel trauma from 9/11.

Illinois State University special education student Zoe Smith says she has always been nervous about things happening to her family, even though she acknowledges it's not a rational feeling.

"Hearing those phone calls that they made to their loved ones, I was afraid that either I’d have to make that one day or I would get a phone call (like that).”

In fourth grade, Smith says she remembers her teacher playing the recordings of phone calls of 9/11 victims on the airplanes along with videos of individuals dying in the attacks. Smith says she was traumatized by her experience in fourth grade, and she refused to attend school on the 9/11 anniversary each year until she began high school.

Marketing student Nathan Olson says he remembers having a guest speaker talk to his junior high class about the hate and discrimination she faced post-9/11 for her race and religion. At such a young age, he says it was disturbing to listen to her stories of suffering in addition to learning about the violent hijackings.

“Reading about it was really hard to comprehend as such a young individual. I felt very confused as to why someone would do something like this. How could there be so much hate in the world targeted towards a certain group of people?”

A few ISU students are old enough to personally remember the attacks unfold and say they have vivid memories of the after-effects.

Navy veteran and current journalism student Jack Alkire says he remembers his junior high school teachers rolling in a TV on 9/11. He and his classmates watched in shock as the towers fell in New York City. Alkire says he was unsure, at first, if the event was real.

In the years following 9/11, Alkire says processing the attacks and the decades of war was different than it would be today. Without the overwhelming prevalence of the internet, there was less access to direct information. At times, Alkire says he was unsure which information was real and which was misinformation. During his Navy service, Alkire says one of the tactics used in his military training was to show videos from the Sept. 11 attacks to break him and his comrades down and remind them of why they were serving.

"It hurts my heart to think of how many lives — not just American lives — have been lost."
Jack Alkire, ISU student

“It’s so strange to think about such a sorrowful event to use that to motivate people to march in step. We like to paint a rosy picture of it. ‘It was for a noble cause,’ but there’s so many things people forget. It hurts my heart to think of how many lives — not just American lives — but lives have been lost.”

All in all, processing the outcomes of 9/11 was a tremendous emotional pain for Alkire.

“I watched 2,400 people die live on television. You don’t get over that. I don’t ever wish that on anybody else to have to watch that at any age. That’s part of the thing that motivates me to continue seeking the truth…. I don’t want their loss to be meaningless, and I don't want their loss to be marred.”

Another ISU student with vivid memories from witnessing the 9/11 attacks is history and political science student David Meyer. He was a freshman in high school that day, and he remembers hearing announcements over the intercom system at his school about the second tower falling.

In the years following the attacks, one of the concepts he remembers the most was a sense of unity that overcame Americans.

“We all wanted retribution, revenge. Talked about how we should handle that, and there was this huge patriotic drive. American flags were everywhere. I mean everywhere. Everybody was a lot more patriotic.”

Meyer says after security adjustments made to protect Americans from future hijackings, he feels safer.

Another defining moment

For teenagers and young adults in the early 2000s, 9/11 was one of the defining moments they say they’ll never forget. Many current young adults say they’ve experienced a similar defining moment: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student Zoe Smith says she sees clear parallels, though the pandemic continues to be a threat even a year and a half after it began.

“Because we’re wresting with our own government and our own fellow Americans, it’s a lot harder to come together and work through it than before, it was an outside force coming in … It’s a lot harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

In the present generation defining moment, conservation biology and zoology student Alexis Herr says she feels that the younger generation can unify.

“It also taught us as a community of people our age to come together … I feel like our generation has gotten really close with each other … I feel like we all somehow can relate to each other a little more like this ... And I feel like that can be like the generation that grew up with 9/11. They were brought together.”

20 years after 9/11, Herr says society should remember the lost lives, but she doesn’t feel it’s necessary to educate children in schools about 9/11. She says it should be up to parents. She's one of the few.

Business administration student Marcus Shaw says the attacks remain a relevant topic of discussion. He says to honor the nearly 3,000 lost lives, schools need to educate young people in a digestible manner.

“It should cause us to reflect on how things have changed since then and how things have also not changed since then … how we are continuing to move forward and better ourselves as not just individuals but as a group of people. Due to the fact that it was so long ago, a lot of people tend to push it to the side forgetting about it."

Shaw says 9/11 is a day we must never forget to prevent history from repeating itself.

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