Was patriotism ‘weaponized’ post-9/11? 3 millennials weigh in
Complicated feelings about patriotism and privacy. Desensitization to violence. A conversation with three Utah millennials about what they remember from that terrifying day and how it impacted their lives
Twenty years later.
An entire generation of young Americans have grown into adults since the infamous day of Sept. 11, 2001.
Even though some were barely old enough to remember the day, millennials grew up in the shadow of the terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead. The day forever changed the world as they knew it — as children and now as adults.
To mark this 20th anniversary of the attack, the Deseret News held a roundtable discussion with three Utah millennials about growing up in a post-9/11 world.
These Utahns weren’t on ground zero when the attack happened. But they experienced the day like millions of other young Americans: watching in fear and confusion as the fall of the twin towers was broadcast on live television. Their young minds would take years to fully understand the gravity of what had happened.
The conversation yielded profound insights about how 9/11 impacted their everyday lives, including how it complicated their relationship with the meaning of patriotism, desensitized them to violence and normalized a world of surveillance.
Meet our participants:
- Spencer Casperson, 32, of Bluffdale, works at eBay in the customer service department. He’s a Utah native who grew up in Draper. Casperson describes himself as an ultimate Frisbee “junkie,” and a lover of “all other sports.” He has an associates degree in accounting from Ensign College in Salt Lake City, and is working on his bachelor’s in accounting at Western Governors University.
- Kirstin Bone, 32, of West Valley City, teaches English at Utah Valley University. She’s lived in multiple states, including Utah and California, as well as eight years in Alabama, where she earned a Master of Arts in English renaissance literature and a doctorate in composition and rhetoric in english studies at the University of Alabama.
- Whitney Jones, 28, grew up in and currently lives in Draper. She’s lived in Salt Lake City, but moved back to her childhood hometown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She works at Workday, a software company, as a financial analyst. She has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology and environmental science from Brigham Young University.
The following discussion was edited for length and clarity.
What do you remember?
Deseret News: Tell us about your experience that day, Sept. 11, 2001. How old were you, where were you, and what do you remember?
Casperson: I was 12 years old, had just started seventh grade at Mount Jordan Middle School. It was a cool, rainy September day. My older brother missed the bus, and I got to school. And my seventh grade art teacher ... he had the TV on. These were crappy TVs they had at Mount Jordan. And I was just like, “Why does he have the TV on? He never has the TV on.”
And then after that, it’s really a blur.
I do remember that every class was the same. We watched the news. And we watched the news the next day. And we would discuss. I think as seventh graders we were all pretty stunned that we could be attacked in our homeland. It was a few thousand miles away, but you know, a (only) a couple hour plane ride, like, it’s right there. Could we be next?
It was very scary. ... What was very interesting to me was seeing the unknown in the teachers’ eyes. They had no idea what was going on. They had no idea what was going to happen next. And that was very interesting as a 12 year old to see teachers not knowing what could happen next.
Bone: Just like Spencer, I was 12 ... I was living out in Lake Shore at the time, (near) Spanish Fork. I remember really distinctly, I was sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed eating Cookie Crisp, like the classic millennial that I am. Just kind of half-awake, watching the news, not really processing anything. My mom was in the other room. I was watching the TV, and I saw them air the footage of the plane hitting.
I remember thinking that it was a commercial for a movie, or something like that. So I said, “Oh, cool. That’s so neat.” And my mom’s like, “What?” And she walked in and saw what had happened. And I realized something was wrong when she started to cry.
I was like, “What’s wrong?” And she’s like, “Someone just flew a plane into the twin towers.”
New York was the kind of place that existed in stories to me. I saw it in movies and television, I had never been there. So it didn’t feel very real. And I remember she and I were sitting there as we watched the second plane hit, and just how terrified she was.
And, of course, then I had to go to school. And they actually kept us in our home rooms for the entire day. We only went out to get lunch, and then came back, and we had the news playing all day as well. And there were several kids in my grade that I knew, including in my homeroom class, who their parents got the notice that they were going to be deployed.
And so that was a conversation that we were having in a small town Spanish Fork area. Even though it didn’t feel real, this thing on the TV was making it so friends’ parents were going into danger.
Jones: I was in third grade.
I remember going to school, and when I got there, they had the little crappy TVs. I was in a portable outside the school, like a shed unit. And we had this little disconnected TV up in the corner of the room. ... We never used those TVs, so it was weird to see that one on. And they were showing the footage of everything going on. I don’t know if it was just the news or if it was like actual footage of it coming down. I don’t remember that. I was 8, so I don’t remember too much. It’s a little fuzzy.
But I do remember the feelings. And I remember my teacher being really scared and shocked. I don’t remember her like saying anything specifically or telling us about the impact or anything. I just remember her sitting there with the rest of us just shocked and watching it. And I don’t know if the whole school was broadcasting it or if it was just her having it on in the corner or what, but I do remember, at one point I didn’t know what to think and I was a little scared.
Still, I knew the implications — that it was, ‘Oh, this is, like, bad.’ If the adults are scared, that’s scary for me as an 8 year old. I remember at least one kid crying that day in the classroom. And that was scary for me, too.
Just the feelings is what I remember more than the actual specific details. But I do remember feeling very shocked and a little scared.
Mixed feelings about the meaning of ‘patriotism’
DN: How did 9/11 impact your feelings about patriotism. What did the meaning of patriotism become for you?
Casperson: It had a very strong impact on patriotism, what it meant to me. To me, patriotism (means) unity. That’s the biggest word that comes to my mind, is that we are unified as one.
I’m one that really struggles with 9/11 memorials, if you will. While I love them, they’re beautiful, I just hate sometimes thinking about that day because of the fear and uncertainty that comes with it. For example, I’m going to the BYU vs. U. of U. football game this year. It happens to be on Sept. 11, and I am just so excited for that moment, because, yeah, we’re going to be a bunch of rival fans sitting down together. But we’re going to have a moment when it’s like, “We are all Americans and we are all standing together, no matter what. We are together till the bitter end, like no matter what comes our way.”
To me, it was a tragic event that just united every American ... They’re synonymous: patriotism and unity. They mean the same thing to me, and it just became just that much more impactful after 9/11.
‘Patriotism should be unity.’ But that’s not what happened.
Bone: I kind of always had like this ... weird cognitive dissonance that happens with 9/11.
When I think of patriotism, I don’t think of nationalism. I think they’re two very different things, and I think they often get mixed up with each other in a way that’s really harmful. Because for me, patriotism is deeply connected to the service members who jumped immediately to help or the front-line workers who responded without question and tried to save as many lives as they could. And the people on the planes who tried to divert them as best as they could.
I think of that act of selflessness is what true patriotism is. I think there was a performance of that in America that happened. But what I think I saw more of, especially, you know, as I’ve lived around the different parts of the country and seeing kind of the echoes and ramifications ... it didn’t create a global unity across America. It created unity within groups and made anybody who is outside of that in group more isolated.
And in a lot of ways, that led to a lot of aggression, and, you know, targeting of people who did nothing to deserve it. It in a lot of ways echoes, you know, the Japanese internment camps and people who were completely innocent were being harmed because other people were scared.
I think that’s one of the things that I’ve struggled with as an adult, is this idea of we treat it like a sacred day, and we treat it as this magical moment where America came together. But if you actually look into what it did to real people, beyond the pretty version painted in our memories, it caused a lot of harm because we got scared, and we got mad, and we lashed out at people and hurt them. And I think that stands in direct contradiction to the patriotism we also saw in those times.
So for me, patriotism should be unity. But unfortunately ... we didn’t really see that as much as we pretend we did.
DN: When you talk about people who may have been harmed or isolated or targeted, specifically, in the wake of 9/11, can you give us some examples of what you’re referring to?
Bone: I remember hearing on the news, how the tone was used to describe the terrorists who attacked and anybody who looked like them and the Afghan people and Iraq and Iran ... their rhetoric was very divisive. But even just in my (Spanish Fork middle school) there was a guy whose family was from India. And I remember he went from being one of the most popular kids to nobody talked to him for two or three years because he had the wrong name. He looked wrong, even though his family’s from India.
Just the violence and the hate crimes that did happen and were reported through that time period, and places where women were afraid to dress in religious garb, because it identified them as being, you know, “the wrong sort.”
‘As uniting as it was supposed to be ... it was also very divisive.’
Jones: As a kid growing up, patriotism was always like, “Oh, you should be proud of your country.”
Maybe that is also mixed with nationalism, but that’s, like, the idea that I grew up with. And I think that we were always taught to celebrate our differences, too. ... The term they used was, “melting pot” or whatever, you know? We have everybody here and we’re just a blend of everybody.
And then I felt like after 9/11 we kind of immediately centralized on ourselves. So instead of celebrating differences, it was like, “Oh, we have to unite as a country and as a people, and we’re all part of America.”
And so it’s (encouraging us) to all unite, but also ... it’s kind of isolating people. And I think in doing that, we not only isolated people that were our own citizens but also ourselves from the world a little bit. And it almost felt like we kind of shut out the world and built up a huge retaliatory response with our military. And it was basically like, “Hey, Look, anybody that touches us at all, you’ll get the guns.”
And within our country, as well, anybody that questioned the response was deemed unpatriotic or basically an enemy, kind of, in some people’s eyes. As uniting as it was supposed to be ... it was also very divisive.
Patriotism: It means ‘love everybody’
Casperson: I’m actually really grateful to hear both of these women’s different views.
It’s definitely eye-opening. I especially love how it was said how some people were raised to be afraid. ... Essentially, people were raised to be racist towards other groups. And it’s just so interesting, because I was raised (differently). Like, 9/11 almost kicked my parents into a higher gear of “We’ve got to love everybody. And we got to love everybody for who they are and what they are.”
My mother, especially, did a great job of showing that. She has always had no fear when it comes to helping out another person. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is, how old they look or are. If my mom saw someone walking on the street with a bag or gas can or whatever, my mom would say, “We need to help that person,” and we would pull over. ... She was always there to show the example of, “We help everybody. Everybody is important. Everybody needs to be loved.”
Now, I know that sometimes the thinking of my mother and myself is a little naive. But we should show love to everybody. And I guess, I would include that word in patriotism. To me, it means to love everybody. To care about everybody as if they’re my own brother or sister, and to be able to help make everybody’s life here in America the best one it can be.
Did 9/11 make millennials question their safety?
DN: When 9/11 happened, it was as if the unthinkable happened behind our own borders. So did 9/11 impact whether you feel generally safe in your own country? Have safety concerns impacted where you are and aren’t willing to travel? Do you think the millennial generation has a different perspective on this compared to other generations?
Jones: As a kid after it happened, I didn’t really notice a difference in anything, just because I was young. I still felt relatively safe. New York was far away, and it didn’t feel like anything was affecting me.
The safety concerns that I had were with the airport security and everything. That seems like a good idea to me, like we should be worrying about what’s going on in airplanes and everything. (And) the privacy acts and stuff like that didn’t really scare me growing up or worry me at all, because it was like, “Well, I have nothing to worry about; I have nothing to hide so I shouldn’t be worried about this either.”
But looking at it now, as a millennial ... I think we’ve just gone a little overboard with some of the safety. I mean, even as far as TSA in airports. Like, “Oh, you can’t take this half-full water bottle on,” you know?
But not even just that. With our military and everything, I think it’s almost an excuse to be like, “Oh, we can fund this because it’s our safety. ... You have to sacrifice your privacy for this, for your safety.” But we don’t really question that.
An ‘ever-present shadow’ that’s ‘desensitized’ us to tragedy
Bone: I remember my dad, at the time, had a job where he had to travel a lot. He would be flying to Michigan one week and then Las Vegas the next. ... And so, we used to be able to meet him at his gate at the airport. After that experience and learning there were, you know, “scary people in the sky,” his next business trip that he took, I was really scared. And it kind of was hard to adapt to, “It’s OK; it’s safe for him to fly.”
It’s actually kind of translated over to my family, still to this day. Whenever we fly, we always let the family know the minute we land and that we’ve made it safely. We just keep closer tabs on each other, and I think that’s something that did happen because of the situation. Just because there’s always that part of your mind (thinking), “What if it happens again?”
And I think that’s something millennials do kind of have as this ever-present shadow over our shoulders. ... What’s going to be the next tragedy that hits?
I think we’re kind of hitting a point where we’re almost desensitized to tragedy and loss because, you know, Columbine and 9/11, and all of these things happened all so close together. And they haven’t stopped. They’ve only escalated in a lot of ways. After the war in Afghanistan came, Iran and Iraq — all of this conflict that has really been definitive of our formative years.
So I think that’s just something we kind of carry with us as a generation, that maybe an older generation doesn’t carry the same way. Because I think if you’re older, when it happened, it impacted you differently. I don’t say it didn’t impact you at all ... but since it was so formative to us, it really created a sense of a worldview.
‘Ever since 9/11, we’ve made it our job to protect the world’
Casperson: Did 9/11 impact whether I generally felt safe in my own country? Initially, absolutely.
As you all know, the Olympics in Salt Lake took place just five short months later. And I remember my mom was going to be directing some Olympic choir .... and I was worried for her safety. You know, “What if a terrorist comes in on one of those planes and gets into our city and decides to bomb us? Like, we’re inviting the whole world to come see us.”
But as I’ve gotten older ... I look at how much we spend on the military, and I have a lot of friends who serve. And it, at first, surprised me how often they’re stationed right here in the U.S. ... It makes me think, “OK, well, if we were to be attacked ... if we were ready before, we’re definitely ready now.”
I definitely feel like we spend way, way, way, way more than we should on military expenses. ... There are lot more other things, I guess, that are just as important. And I feel like ever since 9/11, we’ve made it our job to protect the world. And it’s not our job to protect the world. It’s the world’s job to protect each other.
Casperson: Have safety concerns impacted where I’m willing to travel? Before (9/11), I had done a little bit of traveling. ... But ever since 9/11, not that I’ve been afraid to travel, but it’s more like, I’ve just been not as interested.
I think it’s just because I put in a natural defense, almost, of like, “How can I preserve myself? I can preserve myself by not traveling because a terrorist could take over a plane and I could die.” And that’s a little dramatic. But as I think about it, like that’s how I felt as a kid. Older now, I’m more, like, “I’m not going to travel to this country because there’s a rampant disease of, like, Ebola going on over there right now. Or I’m not going to go to that country because they recently had a civil war and it could be dangerous.”
Do I think the millennial generation has a different perspective on this compared to other generations? Absolutely. I definitely feel like the younger generation has basically zero fear to travel. They’re more afraid to travel because they’re going have to wear a face mask for 5 hours than they are that they could be stopped at a military checkpoint of another country, or a terrorist could affect them in any way possible.
We really do just accept the whole, “Oh, dang it, 4 ounces on this bottle of contact solution, can’t take it on the plane.” We just know that now. But I bet if you asked someone younger than 20 years old, they may not know the answer as to why we do that. That, to me is very interesting, because we’ve accepted these things.
The whole TSA thing. ... I personally think it’s more of like security theater and makes us feel like we’re safe. But we’ve had that for 20 years now. And how much has it changed? It hasn’t changed all that much — at least I don’t feel like it has. And so I feel like if a real terrorist wanted to take over a plane, they would be able to get past that security. (That’s) why, you know, one thing I am grateful for is that we have other ways to to be able to track people and tell if they should fly or not. Some of those can be a little over stingy, but overall I feel like the whole TSA thing is a little overdramatic.
Trading privacy for safety
DN: How do you think 9/11 impacted your day-to-day life as you grew up, maybe even in ways that you realize now but didn’t as a child? Think, maybe, about national security and its implications on privacy and technology. Do you think 9/11 impacted the millennial generation’s willingness to give up privacy for safety?
Bone: This is a question that I think I’m still wrestling with in a lot of ways, because I don’t think, growing up, we were ever asked to consider how it was impacting us. And I think we try to dodge thinking about that as much as possible.
Like, we carry cute mottos with us. And I use that very intentionally rhetorically, right? We kind of trivialize it by saying things like, “Never forget.” And we just kind of say that and move on, when I think we’re much more comfortable kind of doing our one day of service and moving on (rather than) really grasping or wrestling with how it’s changed us, as a country, sure, but even just individually. And understanding what that meant to us as people, even if we didn’t lose somebody, even if we didn’t know anybody who was personally impacted in any way, shape or form.
We do echo World War I sense of humor in that we’re very fatalist and very much like, “Well, you know, it’s probably gonna kill me. If it does, cool. If it doesn’t, cool.” And you see that kind of attitude carry over into our relationship with technology and privacy and stuff like that.
You know, what other generation would joke about having a personal FBI agent who tracks them? That says a lot about how we perceive it — that we assume, even if we’re in no way shape or form somebody who the government would track, that we’re being tracked. And that nothing we do or say is actually truly private.
I think we at least understand that relationship with technology exists, because we do have that kind of sense of being watched through all kinds of media, which I know older generations don’t always have, and the younger generations kind of bank on. And so we do have that weird relationship with it, especially since technology has evolved so much in our lifespans. That’s why we’re the nostalgia generation, because we remember when things were simpler.
The ways in which technology has evolved has impacted, you know, other generations, but in a lot of ways, we’re still grasping with what does it actually mean to us.
The Patriot Act. ‘Boy, what a name.’
Casperson: I think of the Patriot Act. Boy, what a name, right? How could you not vote for something called the Patriot Act? But we just ... I feel like in the moment that it was voted on, we didn’t care entirely what was in it, as long as it kept us safe and protected.
I think, though, we are quick to be OK with giving up our privacy for security and safety. And I actually really love people who stand up and say, “You know what, no. Enough is enough.” I guess with that I mean we need to rely on ourselves and each other to keep ourselves safe, not rely on the government to keep us safe.
It’s good to have basic security, but we need to teach ourselves to teach each other how to keep each other basically safe. And really, especially with the technology we have, it’s not that hard to learn. We just are too stubborn sometimes to learn for ourselves, and say, “You know what, government, I’ll give up my privacy so you can keep me safe, so I don’t have to worry about that.”
A feeling of being watched, but we “don’t care.” Maybe we should.
Jones: I do feel like as a kid, I felt a little more like I was under surveillance pretty often.
In elementary, middle school and then high school it got even worse. Constantly just like, “Oh, you can’t go on these sites.” And I know that’s also for school safety, too ... But also just that feeling of like being watched kind of started in middle school and in high school. We questioned it, but it was also like, “Oh, we know, it’s a thing. So like, we’ll just acknowledge that we’re being watched and move on.”
You see it now too. We know that that’s been proven that some Alexa devices listen in ... it’s not necessarily going anywhere, but it’s happening. Or when you click to agree to all the terms and conditions that apps have, you just click on it without thinking. ... And I don’t know if that’s because we’re lazy, or if it’s out of convenience, or if we just don’t care at this point, because we have kind of already gone through that since we were kids.
It’s kind of of conflicting. ... Our privacy is gone, and we understand that, and we know the implications of that. But also, I feel like we kind of just ... don’t care. Whereas with older generations, and probably because of the Patriot Act, they accepted it blindly, like Spencer said. It was just like, “Yeah, it has to happen because we had this huge event. We have to be careful. We have to take every precaution.”
And I think that kind of does lead to a little bit more paranoia in their generation, whereas ours we’re kind of just like, “whatever.” Like what Kirsten was saying about the FBI agent. There’s so many memes on that, like, “Oh, yeah, my FBI agent watching me.” You know, it’s just an accepted thing at this point ... and it doesn’t bother us. And maybe it should.
America should be ‘the shield instead of the sword’
DN: Do you think any of your beliefs about these topics — patriotism, safety within our borders and privacy — have changed as you’ve gotten older?
Casperson: Absolutely. Part of that, of course, being we just grow up. We learn more. But also because as I’ve gotten older, I definitely have become more ... curious about everything and how it affects me and how it could affect me in the future.
I definitely know that my beliefs on these topics have all changed, and I’m sure that they’ll continue to grow and mature as time passes, as new laws come about, as different events happen in the world.
The biggest thing that I try to do is figure out what I need to do to be able to not only keep myself safe, but keep my fellow Americans — no matter where they come from, what color they are, how old they are, or, you know, if they’re a Utah Ute fan — I still care about everybody.
Bone:. I know when I was younger, it was a lot easier to just love America. Fourth of July was great. I got to wear all my red, white and blue clothes, and, you know, light fireworks and barbecue with the family. And that’s become a lot more complicated as I’ve grown older.
I actually did go through a phase where I was not proud of my country. And I really struggled with that identity. I considered really seriously moving to a different country because I saw a lot of nationalism that was becoming really toxic. There were a lot of things where I’m like, “This is not who I want to be.” ... And, you know, that’s complicated because I think when we talk about loving America, I think we love it as it should be, not as it always is.
As Spencer touched on, America should be about unity. It should be about loving others, right? And that’s where true patriotism really comes from, not just as an American citizen, but as a global citizen. But we can’t do that if we aren’t willing to listen and believe other people whose experiences are different from our own. Because if we just think the world is exactly like it is for us, we’re gonna miss a lot of things.
That’s the America I want to see in my lifetime: the America that takes the time to listen. The America that takes the time to reach across divides, to be the shield instead of the sword. Because I think that’s when we are at our best.
Maybe that means taking a while to really turn inward as a country and take a chance to heal wounds that we have as a nation, and then be able to progress forward as better global citizens. But I don’t really know that I have the answers for that. But I just know that we need to accept that it’s complicated and difficult and messy. And that if we just pretend like we’re the greatest country in the world, we can never actually become that.
‘We’re not perfect’
Jones: I definitely think that my view on patriotism, safety and privacy and everything has changed with as I’ve grown up. And maybe that is just because, you know, you grow up and you get new ideas and everything and you’ve gone through things that increase your knowledge on certain things.
But looking at a perspective of that being changed because of 9/11, I think that patriotism has seemed like an idea that was forced on us rather than something that was earned. And, it is a blind view of America as being perfect, not flawed, like Kirsten was saying. That in itself isn’t saying, “There’s nothing we can do to change,” but I think because we have those beliefs, it is almost like, “Oh, there’s nothing we should do to change because we’re perfect as it is.” Whereas if you actually look into things, we’re not perfect.
The retaliation we had with 9/11, it was weaponized patriotism. Like, we were using that fear that we had from day, and they used that as an excuse to attack and start a war. And like looking back on my school years — we had mass shooting drills, and there have been several mass shootings ever since on a pretty regular basis that we’ve all become kind of desensitized to at this point.
And it’s like, you look at that, and you question, “Why couldn’t that same patriotism be turned inwards?” Because those acts of violence are very similar to what we experienced on 9/11 with the terrorists from people that were not within our country. But we’re seeing that within our own country, and those we turn a blind eye to.
So we don’t do anything to change ourselves, even though ... the younger generations are facing scary things like that. And we just turn away to it because it’s not something that we can easily fight against, I guess.
It’s easier to point to somebody and be like, “They’re the villain; let’s fight against them.” Whereas it’s difficult to look within yourself and be like, “Oh, we are the villain too.”