Photo/Illutration Caitlin Langone with a portrait of her father, Thomas Langone, in Williston Park, New York, on Aug. 23, 2021. “This is my favorite picture of my dad.” (Gakushi Fujiwara)

On a recent Saturday morning in August, I was at the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan with my parents, walking along the pavement beneath a gray sky and small trees.

The city was quiet and warm. I stared over the names and roses and American flags on the side of the Twin Towers’ imprints, into the pit of stone and water, submerged with debris and remnants from that day. 

My father, who stood stoically, seemingly unmoved, still remembers the two towers that had cut through the skyline. On the day of the attack in 2001, he had watched from the foot of his office building in downtown Manhattan as the towers collapsed.

Floor by floor they crumbled, and a plume of smoke and debris blanketed the city streets.

I was born in uptown Manhattan seven years before the attack yet I do not remember the towers or the plaza.

I only have faint memories of the fear and the smell and the chaos that engulfed New York on 9/11 and the city that came after: the mess of rubble and stone, simply “the pile,” in downtown Manhattan where the towers once stood; the uniformed and armed soldiers and officers who walked among the crowds in train stations and airports.

I came of age in the shadow of 9/11, the decisive, traumatic American moment, which touched the lives of every American.

To understand the diversity of experiences among my peers--now adults but children and teenagers in 2001--I spoke to three Americans.

On the morning of 9/11, they all were in classrooms where they watched or heard in real-time as events unfolded. And, in the decades that followed, their experiences have been microcosms for a diverse nation, still impacted by that day two decades ago.


Caitlin Langone was in her seventh-grade class on Long Island on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. She was 12 years old. The teacher received word of an event, monumental, perhaps historic, and walked to the front of the room. The teacher took a deep breath: she said a plane has just hit the World Trade Center.

Langone wasn’t concerned. Decades earlier, a small plane had accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building.

“So that’s what I thought we were kind of dealing with,” she says. “A tragic situation but fairly manageable.”

Besides, her father, Thomas Langone, was in the New York City Police Department’s Emergency Services Rescue Unit and a volunteer firefighter. He had traveled to Oklahoma for recovery after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. She knew the response from rescue workers would be swift and organized.

Her classmate Mary Ellen was upset. Her father worked in the towers. Langone comforted her.

“People like my dad are coming,” she told Mary Ellen. “Rescue workers and firefighters are coming. They’re gonna go up into the buildings, and they’re gonna get your dad and people like him.” She added, “It’ll be OK.”

Langone did not realize that her father was at the towers. So too was her uncle. Their unit joined the throngs of other first responders in the rescue efforts.

After school, she went home and learned that her father had gone to the site. Her mother was upset. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” she said. “It’ll be OK. It’s really crazy right now.”

Later that night, her mother learned that Langone’s father hadn’t shown up for roll call. Her father and uncle were rescuing individuals inside the towers when the buildings collapsed. As the days and weeks followed, it became clear that they were not coming back.

Langone’s father and uncle tragically died.

Langone was surrounded by a supportive and loving family. At the wake for her father and uncle, she was regaled by stories of their lives; it was, she says, “a celebration of life as opposed to a more somber kind of situation.”

In the following years, Langone witnessed the politicization and desensitization of 9/11, which she says has plagued the American consciousness.

“It was really disheartening and kind of jading to go through a teenagehood and watch ... politicians turn a national tragedy into a talking point,” Langone, now 32, tells me.

She watched as the calamity became the justification for wars abroad and wiretapping at home.

“I was a kid, a teenager, going through the mid-2000s,” Langone told me. “I saw the Iraq war. I saw the Afghanistan war. I saw the great recession. I saw how horribly we treated other people. I saw the Patriot Act.”

Langone was impressionable. She observed the nation from the cocoon of youth. An Advanced Placement history teacher told her how history oscillated between civil liberties and security.

She watched the pendulum shift to security and Muslim Americans lose their rights, as wars abroad--in Iraq and Afghanistan--continued unabated. And Langone saw this occurring in the name of revenge: for the deaths of her father and uncle.

“It never made sense to me, and it made me really upset to see people using essentially my father, my uncle’s death to go to perpetrate more violence,” she says.

David Kieran, an associate professor of history at Washington and Jefferson College and editor of “The War of My Generation,” tells me, “9/11 was the major event that raised a set of political issues with which they (youths) had to grapple around U.S. foreign policy, around the military.”

For the younger generation, he continues, the event fostered questions about military service and recruitment, the impact of American foreign policy, and “how to ensure civil rights and create inclusive environments for all people in a time when Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Americans were often targeted for surveillance and discrimination.”

It was these questions, born from the rubble of 9/11, that helped to shape a generation of young Americans.


In the months and years after the attack, Nate Eckman’s area, in Ohio, swelled with patriotism. Crowds of young Americans were swept up in the fever that blanketed the post-9/11 nation. Seventy-seven percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in the weeks after the attack supported the use of military force in response. 

And some enlisted in America’s all-volunteer armed forces in the decades that followed.

“I couldn’t tell you who the valedictorians were. I couldn’t tell you if anyone made it to good schools or not out of my public school system,” says Eckman, 29, who served in the Marines in the 2010s and is now a writer in Texas. “I could tell you who joined the military because they were regaled. They were heralded. They were the people who were just looked at in the community as the cornerstone of pride.”

Military recruiters, says Eckman, drove aimlessly around the town. They would approach him while he played basketball in the park or pulled weeds in his yard.

“Son, have you ever thought of serving your country,” they would say.

On Fridays, during the lunch period, military recruiters came to his school. “Army recruiters were the most aggressive,” he adds.

Soon after 9/11, there was a small uptick in military enlistment, spurred by the patriotic veil cast across the nation. But, in places like Eckman’s town, in Ohio, the more profound shift was in mentality: the military became central to ideas of citizenship and merit as young Americans.

“You grow up,” Eckman says, “psychologically understanding your value comes from your desire, ability to say yes to military service.”

Eckman always knew he would join the Marines. “But I didn’t know if I’d live to see beyond it,” he says. “So I wanted to see something else besides Ohio if I didn’t make it out of uniform.”

And so, in his late teens, he went to Japan, and worked at an alpine lodge, which was near a snow resort, at Mount Norikura, in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. The year was 2011 and he was in Japan during the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster.

While most foreigners left, Eckman stayed and volunteered with the cleanup efforts in the devastated Tohoku region. He saw the arrival of Marines, who, he says, organized the operation; on their arrival, the energy changed and productivity increased. It was his first experience with the humanitarian relief work of the American forces.

Soon after, Eckman enlisted, followed by tours to the Middle East, but not Iraq or Afghanistan, and traveled to 13 countries.

At the time, Eckman says, “I am buying media. I believe that we’re justified in fighting the war in Afghanistan.”

But, while in uniform, a slow and steady disillusionment began to set in. “I don’t think there was a single moment,” says Eckman.

In tours abroad, he “saw the ways that our foreign power were both respected and the ways that our footprint had significant effects,” which was not always positive.

And he saw the personal toll that deployments took on servicemembers--who missed the birth of their children, during tours in countries where the American military presence had what Eckman saw as a minimal impact. While in the Middle East, he realized, “We don’t have to be here at all.”


On Sept. 11, 2001, Donish Siddiqi was on Long Island in the 10th grade. From a bathroom window in his high school, he could see the Manhattan skyline blanketed in a thick cloud of smoke. “I was scared, I was nervous,” he says. “What’s actually happening?”

Siddiqi, who is now 36 and a primary care physician in the southern United States, had another fear as a Muslim American: If this is an attack by “Muslim terrorists, well, that sucks, because I know what’s about to happen.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed the attack, a wave of anti-Muslim sentiments overcame the nation. According to statistics released by the FBI, there were 481 anti-Islamic hate crimes in 2001, an increase from 28 in 2000. Siddiqi, a teenager in New York at the time, heard stories of hate crimes and bigotry; his community of family and friends, he continues, were scared.

For children of immigrants, like Siddiqi, the events of 9/11 transformed a sense of security and safety in America.

“You come here, your parents come here, to create a better life for future generations,” he says. “And now all of a sudden, you’re looked at as a criminal and a murderer.”

Soon after 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which allowed for surveillance, often targeted toward Muslim Americans.

Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of “The 9/11 Generation,” tells me that to be a young Muslim American and American of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent in the post-9/11 era was to grow up “entirely in a world, shaped by this ... rhetoric of the war on terror, you were with us or against us, you know, Islam as anti-American.”

In the ensuing decade, Siddiqi traveled extensively and attended medical school in the Caribbean, before completing rotations for medical training across the United States. Later, he settled in the South.

But as the years progressed, he saw bigotry toward the Muslim American community further increase. In 2010, Siddiqi witnessed the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, further accelerated by proposals for the construction of Park51, a Muslim mosque and community center planned blocks from ground zero that was never built.

“I was more scared in the 2010s, walking around as a bearded brown guy, with my mom and my sister, both of whom wear the hijab, than I was in the decade of 9/11,” he says.

His nerves increased, and he began to look over his shoulder when walking on the street.

And the racism was often subtle but clear. On the first day of a medical rotation, a supervisor asked Siddiqi where he was from, what he thought of 9/11.

“How did it make you feel when you saw the towers come down?” he was asked as if it would be something other than sadness and anger.

Now, 20 years later, Siddiqi, who lost acquaintances on 9/11, still feels the pain of that day.

“9/11 breaks my heart every time I see the videos (and) I see the pictures,” he says. “But I feel a lot more anger now, not because of just what happened but … because of everything that transpired afterward.”


Spencer Cohen is a staff reporter at The Asahi Shimbun’s New York Bureau.