9/11/2021: A lifetime in the aftermath of tragedy

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Photo courtesy of Amy Sancetta / AP
Photo courtesy of Amy Sancetta / AP

I was six years old when the Twin Towers fell.

It was a formative memory for me. Watched it on TV. People jumping out of a flaming building on the other side of the country. I saw fear and confusion tighten their grasp on the adults around me.

I remember a classmate, Lauren something, in tears the next day. When someone asked her what was wrong, she just said, "The terrorists ruined my birthday."

We didn't know.

We were kids.

We were kids when the Patriot Act was passed and our small-town police forces started to militarize themselves "just in case." Kids when the INS gained more power and xenophobia grew in spades, warping the messages in our media so that they encouraged us to mock and belittle the "other." Kids fed on a 24-hour news cycle at the dawn of the Information Age, watching the world grow hostile and hateful as it splintered into fractured online communities. Over two decades, the importance of those online communities blended with the real until there was almost no difference, changing politics and interpersonal communication forever.

We learned to accept it. Some of us didn't notice the changes.

I grew up watching my right-wing father lose faith in the Republican Party as it veered further and further away from the blue-collar, down-to-earth message he'd been raised with. I watched as my progressive, feminist mother bought into the hypercorporatization of the Democrats. The president we elected who ran on Hope was just as militaristic as any before him. And then the president we elected who ran on Hate brought the country to the brink of civil war by promising to make us great again, to bring us back to the good old days.

I don't remember any "good old days" in the United States. We've been at war my whole life. Our schools taught us that we should be proud of that.

I got into journalism because I wanted the truth. When I realized that was the wrong avenue — that the distance between "truth" and "fact" is about the size and scope of the Grand Canyon — I switched over to philosophy.

Now here I am back in journalism to share some of what I've observed.

Our brains don't function well under the constant stress of the 24-hour access to media that came about in the post-9/11 world. We don't sleep right, and we don't think straight. This perpetuates itself, triggering the chemicals in our brain so that we want to feel miserable. We want to know more.

I'm a proud participant in this system, chugging down energy drinks that call themselves "THERMOGENIC FUEL" and doing late-night rabbit-hole runs into the darkest corners of the internet to see what information I can find.

It's a terrible, dystopian habit. An endless, toxically therapeutic doomscroll into the void.

It started as a way to get away from cable news in my early teens, and now I'm an addict. An information junkie with an anxiety disorder. And there are millions of us in the US. Tech natives who have adapted to living in a world where every terrible thing is just a tap away. The entirety of human knowledge and present-day human stupidity is blended seamlessly into easily digestible, terrifyingly damaging bursts of information that short-circuit our dopamine receptors and inevitably cause burnout and depression. I know people who spend time in online hate groups just to get angry about what's going on. Just to feel something.
There was no pre-9/11 for us. It's always been this way: hatred amplified via echo chambers and technology speeding up every day, with no off switch.

This isn't a pity party, though. I feel worse for the millions who had to adjust to this. The early millennials, the Gen Xers, and boomers. Sure, life's always been hard. But this?

Watching as your country uses one tragic event over and over to increase the control it has over you and feed you fear? Having to defend your patriotism at the office or to your neighbor so you don't seem unsympathetic. Watching as corporations tried to "out-America" each other, plastering flags on everything and selling patriotism back to you with a side of fries. And then having to adjust to the tech boom during two "once-in-a-lifetime" economic recessions. Where would you even find time to process all the information being shoved in your face?

Human beings did not evolve to be 45-hour-a-week work drones, let alone drones being constantly bombarded with new information. We're large mammals. Large mammals rest for extended periods of time and eat and hang out. Instead, we intentionally watch newscasters who make us angry. We spend what little nonindustrialized time we have left in our day to argue on Facebook over an article we were too tired to read. This is the world 20 years after 9/11.

The seeds were sewn by opportunists who saw they could make money by exploiting tragedy two decades ago, and all of us just live here in the aftermath, too exhausted to think. Now, with click-based, interaction-led ad revenue, companies profit directly off of our collective distress.

Our protests are stamped out by the militarized local police and forgotten by the apathetic slacktivists who've already moved on to the latest trend. Our progressive politicians are, to the rest of the world, center-left at most, moderate-right at least. And we continue to live in fear and confusion, inviting it into our lives every time we open our phones.

There is no call to action at the end of all of this. No message. After a lifetime of this, every day, I'm tired. We're all tired. The bombing of the World Trade Center has been used over and over again to further corporate and political agendas, to exploit the average American, and to spread hate and fear of our neighbors since 2001. And they tell us "Never forget."

So, I guess I'll end this with a question.

Why shouldn't we forget? And who benefits from that?