The Sept. 11 terror attacks 20 years ago changed the trajectory of young Americans’ lives and gave many a cynical outlook on the world. But some have found redeeming outcomes in the aftermath of terrorism, war, and discouragement
Matthew Strong was 21 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists launched a coordinated attack on the United States from within its borders. After hijacking four jetliners, the terrorists flew two into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and one—failing to reach its destination—into a field near Shanksville, Pa.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the terror attack—the deadliest ever on U.S. soil.
Not far from Shanksville, Strong, a recent college graduate, was working an internship at an insurance company in Pittsburgh at the time, hoping to become a financial adviser. But after the attacks, the stock market dove and financial companies froze hiring. Strong never attained his career in finance.
Besides his career trajectory, the 9/11 attacks and resulting War on Terror ultimately changed the city Strong planned to live in and reshaped his political views. They would also affect his family and his personal outlook in ways he couldn’t imagine.
The 9/11 attacks, launching two decades of war on the backs of a volunteer military force, influenced a generation of young Americans, shifting not only careers but attitudes about the world. After feeling a burst of patriotism immediately after 9/11, millennials became less hopeful about the future than their parents. They have less trust in institutions, including government, media, and the church.
“9/11 changed the world, but it changed the world more for millennials,” millennial pollster John Della Volpe told the Hartford Courant in 2009.
But some of those emerging adults, including Strong, also found ways to redeem the aftermath of terror attacks, war, and discouragement about the future. Here are a few of their stories.
THE STRONG FAMILY–the Rev. Nate Strong, Vicki Strong, and their three children—have deep family roots in Albany, Vt., a small town near the Canadian border. Nate and Vicki homeschooled Matthew, Jesse, and their daughter Heather, and the kids grew up close-knit: When they went separate ways to college, Matthew and his younger brother Jesse would say “I love you” to each other at the end of every phone call.
Two weeks before 9/11, Jesse had graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. Vicki says she hadn’t thought about the implications of her son being in the military until 9/11 happened. He had joined in peacetime, and to her it seemed like her son had gone to camp. After the attacks, she called him to see how he was feeling, and he assured her he wasn’t afraid.
Jesse had finished a college degree at Liberty University and started on a seminary degree when he was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He served in Anbar province, which included cities like Fallujah, where fighting was especially fierce. In November 2004, he wrote a letter to fifth graders at a Catholic school near his hometown in Vermont.
“It is pretty dangerous where I am, but the Lord always watches out for me,” he wrote. Then he reminded the fifth graders it was important for them to know God. “No matter what happens, God always has your best interests in mind. That means that God always does what is best for you—even when it seems hard. He loves each one of you very much.”
Two months later, insurgents killed Jesse Strong and three other Marines in an ambush attack.
The Strong family went into shock. Jesse’s parents joined a support group of Gold Star parents who had also lost children, but Vicki worried her children had fewer coping tools.
Matthew had a good friend who surprised him by traveling up to Vermont for the two weeks surrounding Jesse’s funeral. But he otherwise struggled to know how to grieve. He recalls the feeling of wondering, “Did my body forget how to breathe?”
He coped by managing the mountain of mail the family received every day. He watched his sister struggle at college, where young friends didn’t know how to comfort her and professors chastised her for missing classes.
There was also a generational divide in the family’s grief: Vicki drew hope from the patriotic, unified national response after 9/11, and her son’s sacrifice helped inspire her to run successfully for office as a state representative. Jesse fought for freedom in Iraq, and she would do the same at home. She recalls the family’s hometown newspaper running a front-page photo of an Iraqi woman voting—Iraq’s first free elections in a half century—above the story about Jesse’s death.
“Jesse was defending the polls for their first election. … Women voted while our son’s body was being shipped home to us,” she says, tearing up. “And that to me said, Jesse’s life and death weren’t in vain.”
Vicki’s recollections of the aftermath are mostly hope-filled. She says family members came to faith in Christ after Jesse’s funeral, and she describes a supernatural lack of bitterness against those who killed her son.
But Matthew says he had “a lot of anger.” He remembers being specifically upset about soldiers like his brother not having properly armored vehicles, a problem that U.S. troops had confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about at the time. Matthew became a libertarian, and he began to distrust official statements coming from Washington.
“I became more cynical about government and media and the world at large,” he says.
SOCIOLOGISTS ACKNOWLEDGE that millennials tend to be more cynical than older generations. Millennials feel an outrage about bad things in the world, but also feel powerless to fix them. And while trust in social institutions has declined for decades across demographics, the 2001 terror attacks and aftermath may have accelerated that distrust of institutions for millennials.
“Boomers have much more of a sense of confidence, security, changing the world, even after the late ’60s when things were really dark,” said Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame who has studied millennials. “In terms of ontological security, the world feels at a basic level to millennials that it’s not necessarily the case that things are going to be OK. And 9/11 had to have had something to do with that.”
Smith himself remembers hearing on the radio the daily death counts from the Vietnam War, but he says Americans at that time still felt more in control of their destiny and purpose than younger Americans do now. He sees a streak of nihilism among millennials—“Not total despair, but just lowered expectations.”
Conspiracy theories have blossomed as young people have less and less trust in scientists, journalists, and others in positions of authority—compounded by U.S. government scandals over intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and spying programs on American citizens.
“It accelerated things that were already in the works. It’s not like everything was x until 2001, and then it turned into z,” said Smith.
Demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss, who coined the term “millennial,” have said that older millennials who clearly remember 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror are risk-averse and closer to their parents than previous generations.
That’s especially true for certain millennials who experienced the attacks in their backyard.
Dana Sutherland, 40, a public-school administrator in the South Bronx, grew up on Long Island. She was in a staff meeting last year when staffers got into a debate about whether the COVID-19 pandemic is a bigger deal than the 9/11 terror attacks. New York transplants and younger people thought the pandemic was more significant.
Sutherland and the other New Yorkers disagreed: September 11 was still the worst day of their lives, when everything changed and nothing felt safe anymore.
When the attacks happened, Sutherland was studying abroad in Italy, and she remembers the panic of being unable to get in touch with anyone back home. “I felt like I was jerked into another world that I didn’t expect. I just remember the absolute fear and terror of that day, feeling like life would never be the same,” she says. Only a day or two later did she learn her close friend’s brother had died, along with several dozen people from her Long Island town, including neighbors she’d grown up with.
A British student in her study program told her after the attacks, “It’s about time something happened to you,” meaning America. A Jewish friend of Sutherland’s had phone calls from her mom telling her not to wear anything that would mark her as Jewish.
Sutherland experiences a lot of anxiety now, which she doesn’t think she was prone to. “Is that genetics? Maybe,” she says. “But 9/11 made me feel fear in almost every area where I didn’t feel it before. Who knows if that’s a product of 9/11 or a product of growing up.”
For years in New York she remembers looking around on the train for anything suspicious, like someone with a big bag. If she spotted something, she got off the train regardless of the stop. She never has visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum and doesn’t think she could bear it. She can’t watch a movie where the attacks are part of the plot or read books about it.
She completed her master’s degree in London, and while other friends got jobs there, she went back to Long Island. “I would never leave my family,” she says. “It changed my outlook.”
She now works with children in the South Bronx who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and she feels in some way Sept. 11 gave her a window into that experience.
JEREMIAH SWANSON, now 37, joined the U.S. Army in 2006, feeling a sense of patriotic duty and hoping to learn Arabic. He became an Arabic linguist and worked in intelligence, deploying to Afghanistan, where U.S. and Afghan forces battled Taliban militants amid a surge in suicide bombings and growing anti-American sentiment there.
Swanson would eventually come to view the U.S. wars in the Middle East as “destabilizing,” wars that “disproportionately harmed local Christian communities throughout the region.” He thinks individual Americans joined out of an “act of virtue … separate from whether the war was justified or not.”
When he left active duty in 2011, the natural move as an Arabic linguist would have been to work in government intelligence. But he was interested in theology and the classics and wanted to work in a field more aligned with his “deeper values.”
As he began a series of postgraduate degrees related to the classics, however, Arabic kept appearing everywhere. He studied the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and found his writings in Judeo-Arabic. He found Greek philosophers who wrote in Arabic, and then he learned some Syriac, an ancient language in Middle Eastern Christian communities.
“What Arabic did for me was to unlock Middle Eastern Christianity,” he said.
Studying Arabic and ancient history also helped him better understand Islam, which he views as valuable for Christians who want to be bridge builders and peacemakers. It also helps him better understand the cultural context for his current job as an analyst for international security operations at Samaritan’s Purse. He researches and writes up reports on risks for various regions and responds to security emergencies for Samaritan personnel.
He joined Samaritan’s Purse since, after leaving the military, he felt some moral responsibility to return to the Middle East and help rebuild those communities. He thinks highly of Samaritan’s relief and development work among Yazidis and others in northern Iraq.
“NOTHING IS BEAUTIFUL and true,” says the 9-year-old main character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which tells a story of a boy whose dad dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Like the fictional boy, many real-life millennials who were children or teens when the Twin Towers collapsed have struggled against cynicism over the years. Still, some have learned to look beyond it.
For a decade, Matthew Strong wore his brother’s dog tags every day. Even today, Jesse’s death hasn’t stopped affecting him emotionally.
He cried on the phone remembering the beauty of his brother’s life. He thinks his brother’s death helped him understand Jesus’ suffering better, and why God allows bad things to happen.
Jesse was extremely friendly to anyone regardless of who they were, Matthew said. That’s why his funeral was packed and why the Strongs’ mailbox overflowed after his death. Matthew didn’t have that extreme friendliness: He said he can quickly perceive people’s personalities and avoids them if they don’t pass muster. But after Jesse died, Matthew reassessed how he approached other people.
“It made me have a real change of heart for people who need friends,” he said. “I have this ability to empathize with people and encourage them, so let’s not be so picky and choosy.” He thought about some of Jesse’s friends in the Marines who have struggled with the aftermath of the long wars and losses in the Middle East. He knew he could encourage them.
Ultimately, despite the pain they’ll always share, Matthew thinks his family appreciates one another more than ever.
“Every time I talk to my parents or sister, it’s more meaningful now,” he said. “You don’t know when a last conversation would be.”
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