I was scrawny, zit-faced sophomore sitting in Spanish 2 Honors when Principal Abatemarco informed my high school what had happened in Lower Manhattan the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The school is a 50-mile drive from where the towers stood, and everyone knew someone that never came home that day. My hometown of Middletown, NJ lost 37 people in the attacks, the highest amount of any city outside of New York.
In the coming months and years, I watched as thousands of young men and women died in a war of retaliation, and thousands more died in a war that was loosely tied to it by some political leaders.
I floundered as the nation debated whether the cost of potential safety was worth the definite loss of civil rights.
I cringed as the national dialogue grew increasingly vitriolic once the kumbaya moment passed.
Lastly, I realized America was turning the great amount of international support into fear, contempt and frustration.
This was the national background as I transitioned from a child to an adult, and I honestly can’t think of a better metaphor. There’s not much more destabilizing than going from a teenager who thinks he’s finally figured out the important stuff to questioning what was important in the first place. For every relationship that ended badly, there was a PATRIOT Act. For every awkward high school prom, there was an uncomfortable Abu Graib to match. For every moment of self doubt, there was another soldier not much older than me dying in a desert halfway across the globe.
I don’t say this to make light of tortured prisoners. I don’t mean to demean the tremendous sacrifice of soldiers or the loved ones they left behind, either. I simply identify with the struggle to find one’s identity.
The United States, I was told growing up, were the good guys. We re-established democracy through the American Revolution. We put an end to the Nazi genocide in Europe. The Cold War (of which I have only vague memories) proved we were on the winning side of history. Sure, no one liked to talk about Vietnam, but our intentions were noble, I was assured.
From what I could see on the news, however, America wasn’t wearing the white hats. We were making shady deals with warlords and tyrants to track down a madman somewhere in a country most of my classmates couldn’t find on a map. We were locking up people in prison without seriously considering their guilt. When our allies questioned our ways, we renamed french fries to make a point.
Perhaps I’m naively projecting my own personal struggles of growing up onto a country turned upside-down by the worst day in American history. After seeing the reactions of adults coping to understand the same things, though, I don’t think I’m far off.
Tonight, I am a 25-year-old man sitting in my apartment wondering how much later I should stay up watching the news with work tomorrow. Unlike the people on television and the college students blasting Lee Greenwood from their cars outside, I’m not in a celebratory mood. I cannot find joy in the death of one man, not with the mountain bodies left behind in the last 10 years and the two, maybe three, wars still ahead.
That, I suppose, is a sign of maturity.
Tom Shortell is a New Jersey expatriate working as a reporter in Pennsylvania. He will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.