A generation that has never known peace: Remembering 9/11

The following speech was presented by J.J. Wilson, a veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces and a student at the Yale School of Management, during the 2014 ceremony at Yale marking the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

First off, thanks to everyone for coming out this morning and taking a moment to pay tribute to those who were taken from us on Sept. 11, 2001, and also to those who’ve been taken from us as a result of 9/11 in all the years since.

As I was organizing my thoughts in advance of this address, it occurred to me that 13 years ago I was in much the same position as many of you in the audience, and certainly in the same position as many of you within our broader Yale community. I had just begun the fall semester of my sophomore year of college and for the most part busied myself doing the things that undergraduates the world over are wont to do, very little of which actually had anything to do with attending class or doing homework. For the vast majority of my lifetime, the United States had enjoyed a relative peace. I was old enough, of course, to remember the end of the Cold War, but, from my perspective, with that foe “vanquished,” as it were, there was very little reason to anticipate the ways in which the world would change over the next 13 years.

To take you back a bit, from my perspective, I had an off-campus job at that time, putting myself through school, and I had worked late the night before. I didn’t have class until the afternoon that Tuesday and I remember looking forward to sleeping late. I got the call — on an actual landline, no less — and I remember turning on the television and realizing rather quickly that nothing would ever be the same. It was as if the path of the entire world had been stopped and picked up and moved somewhere else, as if the trajectory of humankind had been somehow fundamentally and irrevocably altered. We didn’t know then, I think, the depth and the breadth of the change, only that it would be as permanent as such things can be within the lifespan of a culture.

Veteran J.J. Wilson, a student at Yale School of Management, told the audience that it’s difficult “to overstate the significance of 9/11 not only in terms of politics and global affairs but also in terms of economics and society and culture.” (Photo by Michael Marsland)

It’s difficult, when discussing this period in time, to overstate the significance of 9/11 not only in terms of politics and global affairs but also in terms of economics and society and culture. To give some context, I would point out that in 2001 Mark Zuckerberg was a senior in high school, Facebook no doubt a twinkle in his eye. We were half a decade away from the iPhone. There was no tweeting or tumbling or probably half a dozen other cool things I don’t even know about.

To put a finer point on it, I guess, without 9/11, do we still have the Arab Spring? Do we still endure the financial crisis? I have little doubt that some bright young mind out there in the audience can directly link the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2008 to the events of 9/11. What about the national divorce rate? Increased diagnoses of PTSD? Advances in emergency medicine directly related to lessons learned on the battlefield?

I use these examples, hopefully, to point out how fundamental an impact the events of 9/11 have had upon our world. From music and books and movies to economics and finance to immigration policy, gay marriage, the Occupy movement, the Tea Party movement, our first black president, universal healthcare, gays in the military, women in combat roles, subsequent terror attacks in London … Spain … Scandinavia … The Boston Marathon Bombing … And now the ongoing uncertainty in dealing with the ISIS threat … Each of these events, each of these movements, has taken place within the context of a time in which the world’s lone superpower could be brought to her knees by two dozen misguided bad guys who took some flying lessons.

“For a significant percentage of the undergraduate population here at Yale and across the country, there’s no such thing as a peacetime America …”

It also occurred to me, as I prepared for these remarks, that on Sept. 11, 2001, the current freshman class here at Yale would have been about the same age as my 5-year-old little boy, who just started kindergarten here in New Haven. This means, of course, not only that I’m getting old but also that we’re reaching a point in our post-9/11 history at which an increasing percentage of our adult population will not remember a pre-9/11 world. For a significant percentage of the undergraduate population here at Yale and across the country, there’s no such thing as a peacetime America; we’ve been embroiled in at least one war throughout their conscious lives. From my perspective, until my sophomore year of college, my understanding of war was limited to Hollywood representations and the media’s video game-style coverage of Desert Storm. Now we now have an entire generation of college-aged adults who throughout their respective lifetimes have never known peace. An entire generation of college-aged adults who have never known peace, there’s something terribly sad about that.

In addition to a son, I have two more little ones. My daughter Catherine just turned two, and baby Caroline was born in the spring in the middle of final exams. And I’m terrified that the lives of my young children will be shaped within the context of a conflict for which we did not ask, a conflict for which we still have no answer. And I worry that this was what the bad guys had intended all along. In which case, I’m afraid that we’re allowing them to win.

I don’t know the right answer; I’m not even sure about the right questions. But it’s our job to ask them — to continue to ask them, until we get it right. And as we stand here … together … in remembrance of those we lost both on that day and in years since … it is incumbent upon us, as a community, as a society, not only to pay tribute to those taken from us but also to cast an eye forward, to resolve that our history will not be written in blood … that our story will be one neither of terror nor of war … that within their lifetimes each of our children shall know peace.

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