For those who are old enough, conversations about Sept. 11 usually start by recalling what one was doing when the news broke.
No matter how routine or uninteresting the task — a corporate meeting, a dentist appointment, or sitting in class during an otherwise forgettable lecture — everyone who saw real-time images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center (WTC) remembers exactly what they were doing then and there.
But 20 years after the fact, a new generation is entering adulthood with no direct memory of that fateful day. For all but the oldest among generation Z, born between 1995 and 2005, Sept. 11, 2001 is history — something you learn about from books and family conversations.
Furqan Mohamed, 19, a writer and a double-major in English and gender studies at the University of Toronto, can’t recall the exact time she first heard about those tragic events. It all happened before she was born, after all.
But she does remember when she first grasped the magnitude of it. It had to do with the many hassles of boarding a plane. Someone remarked about how the security checks and restrictions were a result of the attacks.
“I was like, ‘Oh, well, gosh, that must have been something like really big if it changed the way that all of us are able to go through the airport or get on trains and buses’,” she remembers.
The family of Nashra Syed, 20, a journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto, has a personal connection with Sept. 11. Her uncle was working at one of the WTC towers that day but, thanks to a lucky fluke that saved his life, he was late that day.
And yet, it was only when Syed visited Ground Zero in New York that she says she had a true reckoning.
“Actually seeing it in person and where (the towers) used to stand was kind of shocking,” she says. “Everything kind of hits you, like, ‘Oh, it was actually real, even though you weren’t physically there’.”
The fact that gen. Z doesn’t have a living memory of the events of Sept. 11 and much of what followed is “disjointing” and “a little bit discombobulating,” says Michael Petrou, a veteran foreign correspondent and editor in chief at Open Canada who also teaches in the history department at Carleton University.
Petrou went to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, where he was embedded with the Northern Alliance, an Afghani coalition that had been battling the Taliban since well before the U.S.-led military campaign.
The U.S., Canada and other nations started the war in Afghanistan because the Taliban had sheltered al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind Sept. 11. But when Petrou travelled to country shortly after the attacks, he says he saw no sign yet of the international forces on the ground. There were only B-52 bombers flying so far up in the sky they were just “a glimpse of sunlight” reflecting off their metal bodies.
What’s different about how his gen. Z students contemplate Sept. 11 and its ripple effect is that they can do so “more dispassionately,” which, he adds, “is probably a healthy approach.”
That doesn’t mean gen. Z feels no emotional connection to the segment of history linked to Sept. 11, though.
Mohamed says the U.S.’s rapid evacuation of Afghanistan in recent weeks has left her feeling “anger and anguish.”
“The whole reason that people justified the war was that it was going to stop terrorism, it was going to stop impunity. It was going to stop the way that organizations like the Taliban does take out their ideology against women and ethnic and religious minorities,” she says.
“What was all that 20 years for?” she asks.
Western portrayals of Nobel Peace Prize winner and rights activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, also stirred some strong emotions, says Mohamed, who remembers reading her autobiography in eighth or ninth grade.
“The thing that … upset me and I think a lot of other young Muslims was that people left out the fact that Malala was a practising Muslim,” she says.
“Because in the context of the Taliban, it’s always ‘us versus them,’ like the Taliban supposedly represent Islam, which they don’t,” adds Mohamed, whose parents are from Somalia.
Members of Mohamed’s family came to Canada fleeing Al-Shabaab, another Islamist militant group, she notes.
For Syed, the emotional scars linked to Sept. 11 have to do with name-calling, something she says started in elementary school and continued through high school.
A Muslim Pakistani girl, she’d be asked if she knew any terrorists — or whether she was related to al-Qaeda’s leader himself, Osama bin Laden.
“Comments like those will never really leave you,” she says.
But what gen. Z will never know are the emotions that lead to the political decisions and policies that followed Sept. 11, Petrou says.
“They’re trying to make sense of those events and criticize the actions of people during those events without that sort of background music of shock and horror and anger and trauma and revenge-seeking.”
For Petrou and others who have reported from Afghanistan, a new wave of emotions washed over as the Taliban once again took control of the country in recent weeks.
“We have acquaintances, people we have interviewed or might have been friendly with who have died in recent days,” he says.
“There is a strong connection and sense of obligation that is motivating some people today in their efforts to help Afghans who bought into the freedoms that were available for 20 years,” says Petrou, who adds he continues to be involved in efforts to evacuate Afghanis.
Petrou, as other foreign policy experts, believes the U.S. could have averted the Taliban’s return to power by maintaining a minimal presence in Afghanistan. But Canada pulled out much sooner, he notes. Canada ended its combat commitment in Afghanistan in 2011 and stopped training Afghan security forces in 2014.
The question of why Canada went to Afghanistan and what it did or did not accomplish is something that faces young and older generations alike, Petrou says.