What Was the World Like Before 9/11?

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

by: Taylor Alexander

I have never known a life without terrorists or an existence without terror.

You don’t have to remember the day itself to know that time stood still afterwards. I bet there’s only a handful of days burned into our collective human conscience, and none burns brighter than 9/11. Almost everyone older than me knows where they were when they heard what happened. A high school teacher of mine once shared that although classes were cancelled and parents showed up to take their children home, one boy remained in his chair long after his classmates had left. When she returned to her classroom hours later, the boy was still sitting there and she asked if he had yet to call his parents for a ride home. The boy responded that he didn’t need to call them; he knew they weren’t coming and he had nowhere else to go. Both of his parents worked in the Pentagon. Much later that evening, a distant relative picked him up at school and he moved in with her family in New Jersey. I think about that boy every September. I imagine what it must have been like to learn that your parents are dead on national television in the middle of your psychology class.

I was five in 2001, old enough to remember the day my mom picked me up in the middle of the morning from my kindergarten class in the DC-suburbs, but not old enough to know why she hugged me so tightly I thought I might burst. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was just happy we got to go home early; I thought we had a half-day scheduled that I didn’t know about. I was less happy when I wasn’t allowed to watch television that evening. My sister went home from school with a friend and had an impromptu sleepover. During a conversation with my dad years later, I realized that day was September 11. Did the whole nation leave school early that day, or was it just our corner of it?

I was fifteen in 2011, old enough to know that elated crowds were surrounding the White House in celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death, but not old enough to join them. I thought it would be the last chapter in the previously Unfinished Book of 9/11. It felt like it should’ve brought closure to a nation long scarred by that September’s tragedy, as if we were hoping that one person’s ideologies would die along with him.

I will be twenty-five in 2021. I am among the youngest people to remember 9/11, and I will be the first to admit my memories are muddled and my remembrances are hazy. I have had nearly twenty years to grow up in what my history books call a “post-9/11 society,” but it’s hard to put 9/11 in perspective when you don’t have any idea what the world was like beforehand.

How do you process the magnitude and enormity of a globally-altering tragedy when you remember the day itself but not the actual events or implications? How do you commemorate an anniversary of an event that you know changed everything but you don’t know how? When you learn about it in school but also grow up in a world that is rebuilding itself?

I was buried under the weight of 9/11 for the first time during a family outing to the Washington, DC Newseum. While not part of the famed Smithsonian Institution, it was an interactive museum with some rotating, some permanent exhibits that celebrated Freedom of Expression and traced the evolution of communication. I’ve long been an avid fan of various methods of communication, maybe that’s why I loved the Newseum so much. I stood behind a news desk and pretended to be a reporter, I stood in front of the replica of the car used in the DC Sniper attacks. The stories in the news became real to me in the Newseum in a way they never have been before.

Anyway, I was in sixth or seventh grade and I wandered into their 9/11 exhibit. Entire walls were covered with the front page of newspapers from around the world, all dated September 11, 2001 and all with images of a massive building with plumes of smoke billowing out. Slabs of concrete and pieces of airplane were displayed in the center of the room, implications of artistry as twisted as the metal. Most striking, though, was a poster with a voicemail transcribed. A man named Brian left a message for his wife Julie shortly before his flight went down in a field in Pennsylvania. I know the last sentences by heart: “I’ll see you when you get here. I want you to know that I totally love you. Bye, babe. Hope I will call you.” Before seeing that exhibit, I don’t think I knew that a plane went down in a field because the passengers fought back. I don’t think I knew that it was actually people jumping from the building, not falling debris. I don’t think I knew that the entire world reported on that day’s events and mourned with America.

Before that trip to the Newseum, 9/11 was just this thing I grew up with. It was this abstract concept, like taxes or the stock market, that I knew to be real and that I knew had a huge impact on the adults in my life, but never quite existed in my orbit, close enough to impact me personally. Since then I’ve watched news footage and read reports and articles and accounts of what that day was like and I don’t envy the people who will never forget it. I’ve had more opportunities than I can count where 9/11 became real over and over again. I remember buying the People Magazine edition of the 9/1110-year-anniversary that featured the children of fallen firefighters, most of whom were babies when their dads died and a few still unborn. I remember watching the now-iconic Budweiser 9/11 anniversary commercial in silent reverence. I’ve seen the grassy divots in the fields at the site of the Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Brian died. I’ve walked the rebuilt corridor of the Pentagon, and I’ve looked into the deep, vast holes where the Twin Towers once stood. It feels like it’s become more real to me than it is for many of my friends, which is both a blessing and a curse. Perhaps it’s because we lived in DC and my dad, who worked in homeland security at the time, didn’t come home for three days afterwards. Perhaps it’s because I have a familiarity with trauma that I don’t care to explore any deeper than I already have. But maybe it’s just as real in it’s own unique way to everyone in my generation who remembers the day but grew up processing the consequences, and no one has been able to find the words for how shitty it is that we were robbed of tranquility and security before we got to experience its bliss.

It’s hard to explore the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 generations without feeling like I’m pitting the two worlds against each other. The impact of trauma and grief is never a competition, and both worlds experienced 9/11 in a different, horrible way. For people that knew life before 9/11 and experienced the seismic cultural shift, I imagine that reconciling those two vastly different universes is a heavy burden to bear. But the people who grew up after 9/11, who only know the world after the towers fell and the dust settled have an equally heavy burden: the weight of the consequences of 9/11 and how the world reacted in the following years.

I’ve been traveling since I was born and the TSA has always been a centerpiece of those memories. The idea that you used to be able to pack an entire bottle of shampoo in a carry-on bag is unfathomable. I have held my breath each time my bag passes through the scanner, though I have never packed anything sharper than knitting needles. Equally as unimaginable is the lack of communication that occurred in the days after 9/11 because phone lines were down and television was the primary source of news coverage. I have been inundated with coverage of every national tragedy and every boring news day. I have always been able to immediately connect with everyone I need to through countless methods or apps or services. There isn’t a world where something of 9/11 impact could happen and separate us from the people we care about. For better or for worse, regardless of the scale of tragedy, I know there will never again be a silent day where time stands still.

It has been quietly mused over for years among my friends: do you think this will be our generation’s 9/11? It was asked after the Sandy Hook massacre, it was asked after the Orlando Pulse shooting, it was asked after Trump’s 2016 election. It was asked during the height of the corona-virus pandemic. It’s been asked at every major national tragedy, of which we have survived many. We grew up with the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war in the Middle East, the Virginia Tech Shooting, the Boston Marathon Bombing, the ABC shooting and the XYZ attack. We are Dayton Strong, we are Marjory Stoneman Douglas Strong, we are El Paso Strong, we are strong, we are strong, we are tired of being strong. We are not so much numb to terror as much as we are conditioned to expect it. We have never taken safety for granted… not at a concert, or at a movie theatre, or at school, or at a nightclub, or in the sky.

We have never known a life without terrorists or an existence without terror.


Taylor Alexander grew up in Washington, DC and now lives in Los Angeles. We are excited to announce that since her last post on Our Blog (a love letter to the best customer ever (which you can read over here)), she has accepted a new job with the production company Sweet July Productions. We look forward to collaborating with Taylor on many more fun and light-hearted topics in the future!