This past weekend the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks came and went. The historic juncture in time was accompanied by a flurry of solemn reflections in the media, whose authors shared their memories of that tragic day, many now wondering with anguish where this country of ours is headed and where its 20th century prestige has gone.

One article in particular caught my attention: Roy Scranton’s Sept. 7 piece in The New York Times, “The Only America They’ve Ever Known.” A veteran of the war in Iraq, Scranton writes passionately of the post-9/11 legacy that’s been left to our generation of young adults — a legacy of recession and debt, of corporate profiteers and political opportunists, of disillusionment with our politics and indifference to our bloody wars. Far from bringing us together, our leaders’ decisions following 9/11 have — perhaps irreparably — damaged our national resilience and solidarity, not to mention our reputation abroad. This America, says Scranton, is the only one young people have ever lived to know.

He’s right. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was going on just 11 years old. Many of my peers at the University were of roughly the same age, if not younger, the day the towers collapsed. Being so young, memories are hazy. I was conscious of an outside world, but only in the most superficial sense of the word, as if the earth were one-dimensional.

My memories likely resemble those of any child who, like me, wasn’t directly affected by the tragedy. I remember images of chaos and rubble, but I couldn’t grasp the extent of actual destruction and human suffering. I was aware that terrorists from some far-off place were at fault, but I was ignorant of the historical circumstances that precipitated the attacks. I was frightened, but I didn’t understand that this was only the beginning of an era in which fear would reign supreme.

I was witness to the atrocities of 9/11, but I wasn’t truly a participant in our national grief. Only years later, after revisiting the events of that day, would I join the ranks of those older generations who felt, firsthand and without warning, the pain of such evils.

But here’s the problem for our generation. Though we were alive to see the tragedy of Sept. 11, very few of us have concrete memories from the pre-9/11 era. Having occurred at the outset of our most formative years, the tragedy of that day has become for most young people a “given,” an “inevitable,” an “absolute” from which all subsequent events originate and against which all our progress is measured. For seniors, 9/11 was an unforeseen and horrific jolt to the status quo. But for us, the young adults who came of age in its aftermath, 9/11 set parameters for our emerging consciousness of politics, diversity and the world beyond our borders. Perpetual and unwinnable war abroad seems alarmingly inevitable to young people today precisely because we’ve known nothing else. We haven’t known enough peace to know what being at war really means. Our America is not the America of our mothers and fathers. Our America is a nation forever on edge, at war, in limbo.

Now, 10 years later, it seems that only those old enough to know and remember what it meant to live through that day are in a place to reflect on 9/11 and the changes the U.S. has since undergone. But is there anything of substance for us young adults — then just children for whom the specter of 9/11 has been the constant backdrop of our youth — to reflect upon as well?

My answer is a resounding yes.

No matter how cloudy our memories, we are the youngest generation to live through and remember Sept. 11. In the distant future, we will be the last living generation to say that we were there. As today’s youth and tomorrow’s leaders, we’ve been given a choice: We may remain apathetic, presuming that the post-9/11 status quo that we’ve inherited is the given, inevitable route that our nation must take, or we may recognize that this legacy is an impermanent and curable feature of the previous decade, not necessarily indicative of our generation’s future.

I propose we pursue the latter. Anything less would be one step backward for our democracy and, much worse, an insult to the thousands of innocent people we lost on Sept. 11. 9/11 put our nation at a crossroad, and the path our leaders chose — unilateral and costly warfare over multilateral cooperation — is the only one we’ve ever known. Let’s not assume all this was inevitable. Let’s call into question the presumptions we’ve entertained since childhood. Let’s forge a new legacy — one that deviates from the trend of the past decade and one that truly honors the victims of that horrific day.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.

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