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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Young people today have less connection to 9/11. But it led to the world they know

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What major event happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States?

Those born after Sept. 11, 2001, never experienced the world before two planes crashed into the two tallest buildings in New York City at the time and took 3,000 lives, spurring a decadeslong war and permanently changing the landscape of U.S. foreign policy.

The morning of Sept. 11, members of terrorist organization al-Qaida hijacked four planes.

Two flew directly into the World Trade Center’s North and South towers, both of which collapsed and killed around 3,000 people. One crashed in a rural area near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. One flew into the Pentagon and killed 125, most of whom were civilians. Everyone in all four planes died, 265 people including the terrorists.

Shortly after, then-President George W. Bush, declared a “War on Terror.” Rumors floated that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq – later proven to be false. The U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003, and 47% of Americans at the time agreed with the decision, according to a Gallup Poll from 2002.

And so came a generation that grew up never knowing a world before the “War on Terror,” a war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq and about 15,000 members of the American military or American contractors.

People born in 2001 turned 20 this year. They came of age in a time with readily available internet and information delivered in real time, with slews of opinions scattered in all corners of social media.

With information, however, comes disinformation, said Thomas Preston, political science professor at Washington State University.

Preston said today’s students have different attitudes toward Sept. 11. They grew up on the internet and social media, where a wide variety of perspectives on 9/11 can be found, he said. Students often enters classes already having an opinion about the terrorist attacks.

“We’ve become so enlightened because we have so much information on social media, but it’s almost like they’re in a snowstorm, a blizzard, and you’re asking people to pick out which snowflakes matter,” Preston said.

Some snowflakes are distorted or not snowflakes at all, he said.

The earlier generation had more of an emotional connection to the events of Sept. 11, Preston said, because it lived through the events leading up to the day. Now, students learn mostly secondhand about the event, he said.

“To the students I have now, 9/11 is no more vivid than talking about Pearl Harbor or the end of the Vietnam War … they’re historical events they heard about but they don’t know much about,” Preston said.

Alan Westfield, a retired colonel and a recruiting and enrollment officer in the military science department at Gonzaga University, said he also sees younger students who don’t have any memory of the day. He said many Gonzaga faculty members host events during Sept. 11 so students can learn more about what happened that day, but it’s not the same as living through it.

“That was upfront and personal. That was real,” Westfield said.

Preston was on his way to work when he got the news. He was teaching political science at the time and remembered his day consisted more of consoling emotionally distraught students, not so much placing the event in context.

Preston said the younger generation has the benefits of hindsight now that the U.S. military pulled troops out of Afghanistan, with the Taliban regaining control of the country almost immediately.

Preston said he remembered how rapidly his lesson plans and class discussion evolved during the years after Sept. 11. Every day came a new policy now considered a staple of U.S. government.

The 2002 U.S. Patriot Act expanded national surveillance, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was founded in November 2002 and with it came the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Borders Protection. And then there was the invasion of Iraq.

Fear started to spur conspiracy theories about the U.S. government’s knowledge of the attacks, but Preston said conspiracy theories aren’t new in America.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, conspiracies cropped up that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had known about the attacks, Preston said. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, fringe theories swirled that it was his own vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had him killed.

Conspiracies always happen after a tragic or sensational event, Preston said.

“When bad things happen, people want to assign blame for it,” he said. “It’s more comforting for some people.”

There’s no national standard that requires teachers to bring up Sept. 11. Each state is allowed to set its own educational standards.

A study from the University of Wisconsin found that after the attacks, 16 states mandated teaching about the event. In Washington, teachers have to mention Sept. 11 by name, as well as the “War on Terror,” the U.S. Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. Every other topic – defining terrorism, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden – is left up to individual schools.

Sometimes, schools mark the anniversary with a moment of silence.

Mead High School senior Chris Miner said he was disappointed Mead didn’t mark the tragedy with a moment of silence last week.

“It’s sad to see recognition dying out for the nearly 3,000 individuals who have passed on Sept . 11 attacks,” Miner said. “At school, holding a moment of silence was part of honoring those who passed during the attacks but also put their life on the line after the attacks. Today we didn’t honor them.”

Most teachers also use videos and documentaries to teach the subject, according to a survey of teachers done by Jeremy Stoddard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education.

Some of this comes from a culture in the U.S. about teaching history, Preston said.

“We do have a tendency to ignore the past and have history be demonstrated upon us,” Preston said. “We don’t do a very good job of teaching history.”

Shafiq Moltafet contributed to this report.