Photo by Pete Souza/The White House
By Daniel Charles
In his speech yesterday marking the thirteen-year anniversary of September 11th, President Obama made a thought-provoking observation amidst the requisite words of comfort and imagery of strength and courage that define the day. “Beginning tomorrow,” he said, “there will be teenagers –- young adults –- who were born after 9/11.” So it is that today, September 12, 2014, hundreds if not thousands of young Americans will celebrate their thirteenth birthday, and in doing so mark the first generation of teenage Americans to have been born into the post-9/11 world. They are the September 12th Generation.
The September 12th Generation is not the first American generation to have been born into a changed world – far from it. Those born in late 1991 were born into a world in which the Soviet Union no longer existed, one in which there was no “Cold War” and the fear of imminent nuclear war was greatly diminished. In spite of conflicts in Iraq, Somalia, and Kosovo, and terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel in Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen, this generation still had the luxury of a childhood spent in a pre-9/11 America, one that was optimistic for the emergence of a more peaceful world.
The September 12th Generation was born into an America that knew war, not peace. The thirteen years since 9/11 have been marked by extensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with grave costs both in blood and treasure. They have been marked by additional American military operations across the globe, in the form of drone strikes, Special Forces operations, and more. As Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and others continue to threaten the homeland, it seems as though the September 12th Generation may never know anything but war.
Consider for a second the world they know: One in which they may always have to take their shoes off for airport security. One in which a stray backpack at a public event is a serious cause for concern. One in which printer cartages are weapons, and cell phones are tools for state surveillance programs to collect metadata. These are but a few of the concerns they face for having been born the day after September 11th.
Then again, they also know a world in which America is vigilant. One in which national security remains a priority and as a result the American homeland has not been subject to another major attack.
In five years the September 12th Generation will be old enough to vote. At this point they will not only be the generation born post-9/11, but also the newest American generation charged with deciding its future. How will not having witnessed 9/11 impact their decision-making? Will national security become a political slogan that masquerades the fact that the American government has become complacent and the population is vulnerable yet again, or will this generation’s acceptance of technology’s incursion into all aspects of life canonize the acceptability of government surveillance in the name of security? Will they be war wary and withdrawn from the conflicts of the world, or called to action by the desire to exert American influence whenever and wherever possible?
Perhaps these questions are not for the Americans that turn thirteen today, but rather for the America that turns thirteen today. The America that today enters its post-9/11 adolescence does so with many questions still unanswered, many challenges still ahead; informed by the collective horrors of terrorism, war, and the implications of both on its society and policies. Nowhere are these implications more apparent than the decision-making that surrounds confronting ISIS, where the president has to balance the public aversion to further U.S. military intervention in the Middle East with the public demand that terrorists not be given a base from which to threaten American lives and interests.
The ISIS question is only one of many that will confront us in the days, months and years to come, but it embodies the quintessential challenge we as Americans face. Whether we are part of the September 12th Generation, The Greatest Generation, or any generation in between, collectively, our challenge is to take the past thirteen years, America’s “post-9/11 childhood”, and to learn from it and use its lessons to inform our future. In doing so, we will ensure that America’s post-9/11 adolescence will be one of maturity and growth, both as a society and as a nation. Like any adolescent there will be missteps along the way, but ultimately America will emerge stronger, wiser and better for having successfully navigated this post-9/11 world, the world the September 12th Generation was born into thirteen years ago today.
Daniel Charles is pursuing his M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at 9/11 Memorial” (speech, Washington DC, September 11, 2014), The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/11/remarks-president-911-memorial