Editorial: What are the lessons of 9/11 for the next generation?

How do you explain 9/11 to a new generation?

It’s yet another challenge that falls upon our teachers. As we arrive at the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in modern history, young students will be exposed this week to images of the collapsing towers on websites, social media, perhaps even televisions.

Educators, ever on the front lines, strive to offer context. On this solemn commemoration, witnesses to Sept. 11, 2001, who can share oral histories with a new generation should consider doing so as well.

No podcast can capture the anxiety that roiled through Americans on 9/11. That level of national disquiet had not really been felt since that date of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked and 2,335 military personnel were killed. The feeling of anticipating the next blow. Of seeing a section of New York drained of vibrant colors as gray dust peppered death over the landscape.

After that first air strike two decades ago, Americans were drawn together to broadcasts. Just 102 minutes later, they witnessed the world change with the televised collapse of both World Trade Center towers.

Today’s students are living through an equally epic time in world history. Two decades ago, we braced for more attacks. Anxiety seized everyone. COVID-19, though, strikes again and again. And no, the end is not in sight. This is a different sort of war, as we face an unseen enemy with only masks for uniforms and vaccines for weapons.

During the pandemic, personal affronts can distract from the remarkable generosity occurring every day. Such good will in the days after 9/11 linger only in memory, all the more reason to document and share them.

Any oral history would surely summon memories of paper postings of the “missing,” the faintest of hopes to locate the fallen. Just short of 3,000 people died in the attacks, a figure dwarfed by the 650,000 victims of COVID in the United States.

Some 161 victims of the 9/11 attacks had ties to Connecticut communities. So many more were injured, physically and emotionally, while first-responders suffered over the ensuing years from exposure to toxins released at ground zero.

Any oral history should also reflect on acts of kindness in the days following 9/11, including donations of food, clothing and blood to strangers.

For some time, colors were blurred — particularly red and blue. It would not last. As Americans, we are not where we hoped to be 20 years on. We are overdue to declare a truce, to ponder what the United States looks like from the outside.

Between these cracks of life and death is the manner of how we live. Even 20 years later, we are still healing. The legacy of 9/11 should not be of politics or our nation’s longest war, but of demonstrations of inclusion, tolerance and empathy. It still can be. This oral history is still being written.