Children across the United States woke up on Sep. 11, 2001, wondering why their parents weren’t in their beds. We wandered into our living rooms to find our parents sobbing on the couch as the television replayed footage of the tragedy that would define our generation.
Some parents chose to describe the incident to their young children, believing that honesty is the best policy. Others simplified the situation to “bad people hurting people” or ignored it completely. No matter what the reaction was, everyone was scared. We were all one nation brought together by crisis.
On March 19, 2003, former president George W. Bush gave the word to invade Iraq, and our country was thrown into the midst of political and emotional distress. This war was fought on foreign soil and American families weren’t exactly running for their bomb shelters — but a war is a war. To children in Iraq, the war was a far more vivid nightmare than most of us can imagine — but there is no doubt that we here in America felt it too. We glimpsed alarming headlines and shocking pictures in the paper. Some of us had uncles, cousins or parents fighting overseas, or knew friends who had them. It was not and still isn’t easy.
In her book, “Helping Bereaved Children: A Handbook For Practitioners,” Kathleen Nader writes, “ Prolonged or repeated TV watching of traumatic events, or disturbing images related to these events, has been linked in youth to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and grief.” For those of us who were lucky, our world was still pretty sheltered when we were in elementary school — a bubble maintained by parents who wanted us to have our innocence as long as we could. The violence that constantly played on the TV or peeked at us from news stands opened our eyes to the brutal nature of the world.
With our illusion of a peaceful Earth shattered at such a young age, many of us became desensitized to the violence. In a few months or years, we no longer shuddered at the headlines. Today, headlines like “Bomb Kills 33 At Iraq Train Station” barely phase us. The sort of photos that would have given us nightmares for weeks don’t give us a moment’s pause.
One could say we have accepted this world for what it is: a sometimes wonderful, sometimes cruel place where good and bad happen daily. We are now almost numb to the violence and hate. Yet it is obvious that “getting used to it” is a sort of defense mechanism — a way to not get hurt.
Perspective on religion, often a confusing and complex topic for children to understand, changed after 9/11. Arguably, children are empty vessels, whose beliefs are shaped by their environment when they are young. Some children heard their parents talking about the war or heard prejudiced comments against Muslims — and at school, we shared in an awareness of this prejudice.
In a study done by the Department of Developmental Psychology at Ghent University in Belgium, it was found that “prejudiced dispositions are transmitted across generations. Significant parent-adolescent concordance in racism was found and results from a more fundamental inter-generational transmission of ideology.”
When ignorance is transferred to a new generation, it’s a depressing transmit of shallow assumptions. The fear which many adults felt about Islam, and the racism that is too often born of such fear, sometimes latched onto their children. For many of us, the nation’s complex attitude toward Islam was was our first introduction to racism.
We are older now and while our parents still play a part in our lives, their beliefs about race, religion and politics do not have to be the same as ours. The controversial war divided the country. The disappointment in the choices of the Bush administration drew the liberal community of Santa Monica closer. For some of us, it cemented our political beliefs early on, and, for others, the politics of the war and the whole Bush administration only confused us.
As our troops begin to return home, our childhood ends and we go off to college, to the “real world.” While it might seem that the Iraq war was a cloud of hate and violence hanging over our earlier years, there is no doubt that its presence shaped the people that we will become. It is up to us to decide how we are going to take that experience and carry it with us for the rest of our lives.