I was 11 years old when 9/11 happened. I was on my way to school in Southern California when I heard the hosts of my mom’s favorite morning radio show laughing on air.
They were joking that some dumb pilot had crashed into the World Trade Center. This went on for a few minutes before they announced that a second plane had hit the South Tower.
Then they stopped laughing.
Shortly thereafter I arrived at my step-grandmother’s house to find four televisions all tuned to different stations, each one highlighting a slightly different angle of the unfolding tragedy.
Plumes of smoke rose out of the steel behemoths as my mind tried to comprehend exactly what I was witnessing. Over the next hour and a half I watched both towers collapse. Then I went to school like it was any other day.
I don’t remember much past this if I’m being honest. But I do remember feeling like I had been woken up from a dream. 9/11 stands out in my mind as a sort of reality check. A wakeup call. A glimpse of the real world.
In the 20 years since 9/11, I’ve begun to forget that feeling. I’ve begun to fall back into this dream-like state of being. I think we all have.
I don’t mean that we have forgotten 9/11 or that we don’t care about what happened, but, collectively, society has lost some of its perspective.
If you look at the types of problems that cause outrage today, you can see what I’m talking about. On one side we have people complaining that wearing a mask in certain settings is the equivalent of Nazi Germany, and on the other side we have people getting offended over the use of the term “pregnant female” instead of “pregnant person”.
Are you kidding me? Have we forgotten how united we used to be?
I still remember going to Costco shortly after 9/11 and seeing a big transparent box filled to the brim with donations for the families of first responders. There was even a line you had to wait in to donate.
Let me repeat. A line to donate money in the United States of America. Go figure.
But what changed? When did the most minor inconveniences and the smallest offenses become an invite for outrage? What happened to this country?
I know what happened. We all forgot. We all forgot what real problems look like.
As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt state in The Coddling of the American Mind:
When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to be “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient.
Except this didn’t just happen to children. It happened to all of us. We built the most convenient and inoffensive society in human history.
We built a world where Amazon can bring you anything in two days flat. A world where Dominos can deliver you a pizza in 30 minutes (but still provides a pizza tracker in case you get too impatient).
We built a world where you can block out any opinion you don’t agree with. Where you can follow and unfollow anything that you choose. We built a world where you can build your own little world.
As Bo Burnham sang in Welcome to the Internet:
And it did all the things we designed it to do.
And now we are living with the consequences of that design. The consequences of our great forgetting. And this great forgetting has permeated every part of our society too.