This is a guest post by Andrew Hammond, a Kluge Fellow from Aston University in the United Kingdom. Andrew is working on a project titled “Why We Serve”: A Veterans Oral History of 9/11 and the War on Terror.
“2002,” was the response; “When were you all born?” the straightforward question.
For someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and studying the complex history and afterlife of the event, the year was striking. The year 2001 is typically left out of the “9/11” designation, yet these seniors at Ballou High School in the Southeast quadrant of Washington D.C. were divided from these momentous events by time’s inescapable logic in a way there was simply no getting around: they were born in 2002.
In contrast, “Well I was a kid when it happened,” or “I think I remember,” is what I heard while teaching a course titled “The Global History of 9/11” to undergraduates at Wagner College on Staten Island in 2017. Some of the Wagner students even had first responder family members who were directly involved in the events across the Bay in Manhattan that fateful day.
Translating Between Generations
There will always be a division between those who remember 9/11 and those who do not, a generational dividing line like “a day which will live in infamy,” “from Dallas, Texas,” or “one small step for man.” I was born too late to witness or remember these earlier events — a surprise military attack, the assassination of a president, the moon landing — but I realized in that moment that it was now I who bore the imprint of history, with 9/11 an unmistakable marker in my own passage from seed through sapling to maturation and decay. I felt the passage of time press down on me a little bit more that afternoon.
On September 11, 2001, I was in the darkroom of a military intelligence section at a NATO base in Germany when a colleague announced to me that the North Tower had been struck. Then I witnessed the South Tower struck on the TV we had continuously showing BBC news.
Ever since then I have been trying to understand these events, the world, and my own place within it, in a much deeper way. Indeed, this endeavor ultimately led me to leave the military in 2005 in order to study history and international affairs on a full-time basis. It is what brings me to the Library of Congress as a John W. Kluge Fellow, where I am working on a project that aims to tell the story of 9/11 and the War on Terror through the voices and stories of America’s veterans.
I was at Ballou on the 18th Anniversary of the terror attacks as part of the September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance, or more prosaically “9/11 Day,” whose noble mission is to “transform 9/11 from a day of tragedy into a day of service, unity and peace.”
On the 17th Anniversary I packed meals on-board the USS Intrepid in New York. On the 15th Anniversary I was at Ground Zero helping out while a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, who for two years had a desk directly overlooking Ground Zero in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s offices.
By its very nature my project relies on those who lived and experienced a particular historical epoch, but part of my challenge now as a historian – a challenge that was brought home to me that afternoon – is to work as a translator of sorts within and between generations.
The Tentacles of 9/11
Ballou High School is situated in the part of Washington DC that few people think of when they think of 9/11. More common would be to think of the Pentagon building smoldering across the Potomac River to the west, which was struck by American Airlines Flight 77, or alternatively of the US Capitol building across the Anacostia River to the north, the most likely target of United Airlines 93.
If one imagines the diamond shape of the District of Columbia like a baseball field, Ballou lies in that portion between the home-plate and first-base where little of the government and tourist action of the city takes place. But the tentacles of the 9/11 story certainly reach there.
Bernard C. Brown II may well have attended Ballou. In 2001, Bernard was an 11-year-old student at Leckie Elementary School, a feeder school less than a mile away. A gifted athlete, Bernard was selected for a trip to the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California, funded by National Geographic.
His father, Bernard Brown Sr., was a Naval Petty Officer who worked out of the Pentagon.
Bernard Jr. went to his school briefly on the morning of September 11, 2001. Then, he headed to Reagan National Airport, where he boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which would strike the Pentagon soon after taking off. By chance, Bernard’s father was not at work at the Pentagon that day.
The loss for Leckie Elementary would not end there. Two parents of Leckie students were working in the Pentagon that morning, while one of its teachers was also aboard the flight – in fact, she had left her car at the Browns’ house that same morning to accompany Bernard Jr. across country. Among many other things, then, 9/11 is part of the story of the community from which Ballou draws its students.
I was at Ballou with United Mission for Relief and Development (UMR), a DC-based non-profit that serves as a lead-agency for Youth Service America on National Days of Service. The purpose of the afternoon was, first, to discuss and reflect upon 9/11; second, to encourage the students to engage in service over and beyond 9/11 Day; and finally, to engage in an act of service.
I spoke to the students about 9/11 and its ongoing significance – which necessitated the ‘translator’ role mentioned above. I knew that the students would most probably have been born just after 9/11, but the phrase I opened this piece up with – “two thousand and two” – did not strike home until I heard it from the lips of two dozen or so high school seniors.
For the second part, we worked with smaller groups of students to develop a group project that continued service beyond 9/11 Day: an activity that brought out a level of compassion and warmth that was genuinely moving. Finally, the students made up hygiene kits for homeless veterans and handwrote letters to accompany them. These kits – antibacterial gel, toothbrush, toothpaste, and so forth – were distributed via the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV).
Some of the students asked a probing question that connected 9/11, the wars that followed in its wake, and our activity: “Why are our veterans allowed to live like this when they have served their country?” Rather than provide them with a glib off-the-shelf answer, not that I even had a satisfying one, I encouraged them to go to the NCHV website and to do some more of their own research on the subject.
The Bookends of History
This got me to thinking about the unfolding of historical time and our relationship to the past. We are all, each of us, allotted a portion of time that maps onto a chronology that we human beings have constructed to help us chart our way through it: for example, the life of Frederick Douglass, who lived out the final part of his life on the same side of the river as Ballou High, maps onto the period “1818-1895”, Bernard Jr. onto the period between “1990-2001”. The final part, the book-end on the right hand side, can be inscribed onto the ledger for natural reasons, like the massive heart attack Frederick Douglass suffered, or due to human intervention, like the heinous act of terrorism that cut short young Bernard’s life. For these same reasons the distance between the first date and the second can be shorter or longer.
We are all more “expert” in the events that happened during our lives and assume that these events were of deep importance, that they should be taught to those who did not happen to live through them, and that they have ongoing significance. With regard to “9/11” and the 18th anniversary at Ballou High School this was an easy argument to make. It was an event of great magnitude, it was historically quite proximate, and it continues to affect political discourse, homeland security, foreign affairs – not least the ongoing war in Afghanistan which has gone on the surpass Vietnam as the longest in American history – and, as the students pointed out, veterans’ lives.
I did not, then, expect the students to be experts on the contemporary history of 9/11 in a way that, say, Thucydides was with regard to the Peloponnesian War or AJP Taylor with regard to the Second World War.
What these students did have in abundance, as was shown by their service projects, in the letters they wrote to veterans, and in the probing question they asked about the civil-military compact, was an intuitive sense of arguably the most important guiding light of any historical inquiry: how did human beings relate to one another? That in turns begets another question: how should human beings relate to one another?
Each new generation brings forth a re-calibration of historical time and a gradual transferal of responsibility for humanity’s future from one generation to the next. If those born in the temporal shadow of 9/11 are anything like the students at Ballou High, empathetic, caring, inquiring, and kind, then we have nothing to worry about.