How 9/11 helped define this generation’s new brand of patriotism

Young people's patriotism exchanges the fetishization of stars and stripes with righteous demands for change

Published September 11, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Young Nick Gorki of "Generation 9/11" at the memorial pools (Courtesy of the Gorki family)
Young Nick Gorki of "Generation 9/11" at the memorial pools (Courtesy of the Gorki family)

Nick Gorki is one of about 100 children who were born after their fathers died in the terror attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. Twenty years later, he's a new college student who came of age in the post-9/11 world.

As one of the seven subjects of the PBS documentary "Generation 9/11," he confesses he's "tired of living through historical events." Gorki's generation has waded through defining presidential elections, national tragedies ranging from school shootings to the Jan. 6th insurrection, and now a global pandemic — all without a moment to breathe. Despite this, Gorki has remained determined to resist bitterness and hate.

"I want people to know that 9/11 hasn't made me spiteful," he told Salon. "I've been told that it would be justified if I was Islamophobic or even hateful toward these groups that were turned against after 9/11. Although I'm not fond of al-Qaeda and the groups involved, I find that life is so complicated that hating someone because they share a simple, broad similarity to those connected with the attacks . . . creates so much unnecessary hate in the world that we don't need any more of."

Gorki's compassionate politics might come as a surprise to anyone who's been on the receiving end of a chilling "OK boomer" or some variation of the mocking Twitter meme du jour to excoriate political conservatives, transphobes or racists. Yet, Gorki's desire to not reproduce the harms that have befallen him, or, simply put, to try and make things better and not worse for others, isn't actually all that different from other young people his age.

Today's post-9/11 youth are understandably outraged by the devastating consequences of 9/11 and the post-9/11 wars they're forced to experience each day. Gen Z, the first generation to grow up after the events of Sept. 11, is more likely than any other generation to believe other countries — like those with socialized health care and education, and more humane criminal justice systems — are better than the U.S. 

According to a 2020 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International peace, 70% of zoomers believe that the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were "a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money and they did nothing to make us safer at home." Less than half of Gen Z believes "America is stronger because of its global leadership," and about half of this generation believes American foreign policy should focus instead on combatting climate change.

This skeptical outlook on the country doesn't necessarily comprise an unpatriotic view. Rather, it's a fresh, increasingly popular application of patriotism, not as an obsessive fetishization of stars and stripes, but a determination to improve the material lives and circumstances of our fellow Americans. It's a determination to enact positive change in the world based on compassion for others, a determination uniquely forged by the harsh realities stemming from 9/11, which have indelibly shaped this generation's lives and values. For all their skepticism, just last year, a national poll of young people (ages 18 to 24) found 83% said they believed they have the power to change the country through voting.

Youth patriotism in 2001

In August, a viral video compilation of post-9/11 Disney Channel interstitials began to recirculate, in the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the national tragedy. The supercut is a stunning historical relic that memorializes former child stars who have since faded into relative obscurity or at least ended up in Hallmark movies. The commercials also enshrine a nationalistic and dated patriotism, as 2000s teen heartthrobs wax poetic about the beauty of the American flag to young, impressionable audiences.

It also reflects the true sentiment at the time, when a majority of Americans came together in their shared grief and terror over experiencing the attacks either in person or through their TVs. However, it's the sort of patriotism many of today's young people, who have lived and come of age in the harsh aftermath of our post-9/11 country, would gaze upon with revulsion, or mockingly subject to the meme treatment. 

In one of the clips, "7th Heaven" star Beverly Mitchell describes her feelings for the American flag. "It means everything to me," she says. "It means life, it means freedom, it also means unity and it means love."

Hilary Duff, who may have inadvertently originated the "and then everyone clapped" meme, says, "I saw a fire truck pass by the other day, and it had an American flag on it, flowing in the wind. It was so amazing and everyone started clapping, cheering."

Another of the commercials features former First Lady Laura Bush. "All across the country, everywhere I look, I see an American flag," Bush says. She continues, "It stands for the rights of many people, religions and beliefs. That's what freedom's all about."

Ask almost any vaguely online Gen-Zer who's ever shared an Instagram infographic on some form of injustice for their thoughts on Bush's commercial. You'll probably hear the same thing: Who are the "many people" and "religions" for whom the flag affords protection? Certainly not the nearly 500,000 people killed in the United States' post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since 2001. 

New media, new patriotism

Today, the media we consume isn't at all awash with those Disney Channel odes to the flag. Many modern shows and movies, and especially those that are more targeted toward young people, are just plain more aware and demonstrate a social consciousness. This content is infinitely more willing to confront and unpack issues of violent nationalism, the military industrial complex, or the more inhumane features of post-9/11 America, in general. 

With the advent of streaming, older zoomers can now watch past shows from the last 20 years. It's common to hear from college students that their favorite shows to binge are '90s or 2000s hits like "Friends," "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation." Similarly, that means catching up with more adult fare on HBO. That includes "Veep," a foul-mouthed but beloved adult comedy with an honest if not depressingly bleak outlook on the corruption and insincerity of American politics. By the end of the series, in what's perhaps the show's most real-world development, ex-POTUS Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is briefly held under house arrest in Norway for committing war crimes — specifically, a drone strike in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, two very different Disney+ series, but with political messaging, demonstrate what the younger zoomers may be consuming. Comedy "Diary of a Future President," now in its second season, follows the political aspirations of Latina tween Elena Cañero-Reed (Tess Romero) as she seeks to run for student-body president of her middle school, decades before she'll eventually become the first woman POTUS (portrayed by Gina Rodriguez). The series at times alternates between Elena's junior high political career and the early parts of her presidency, as she swerves from pushing her school to change its sexist mascot, and supporting a friend in coming out as gay, to prioritizing diversity in her presidential cabinet as an adult. 

"Diary of a Future President" is a patriotic if not mildly critical undertaking, one that perceives the United States and its political systems as redeemable in the right hands (by a woman of color), and asserts that leadership and change start young. The show is fundamentally optimistic, as all content for its age group should be. 

With another Disney+ series,  Marvel's "Falcon and the Winter Soldier,"  young people will grow up with a Black Captain America in Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Sam very publicly reckons with what it means to represent a country with deep origins in white supremacy, and succeed a beloved predecessor with blond hair and blue eyes. The show calls into question the racist history of the iconic shield and its roots in racist experimentation on Black people in order to create the MCU's renowned supersoldiers. 

This hidden history carries deep parallels with real life, drawing on America's dark legacy of racist human experimentation projects. "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" unflinchingly highlights the horrors of institutionalized white supremacy. But it also goes the typical MCU route of portraying radical revolutionaries who support anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist policies as needlessly violent extremists. In other words, there are, indeed, some conversations about the dark side of American nationalism that we're ready to have in society. But in terms of discussing solutions to these inequalities that involve actual redistribution of power and resources, we may not quite be there.

Overall, this isn't your grandparents' Disney Channel — nor is it the Disney even millennials consumed as children, rife with American flags and Laura Bush testimonies. It's neither fully in awe of American exceptionalism, nor fully confident that America is irredeemable. Like today's post-9/11 young people, it's still finding its political footing, determining where it stands. 

This makes sense considering that this is the era of majority-millennial parenting, that is focused more on the wholeness of their Gen Z children. Whether it's mental health, gender identity or political activism, these are deemed what's important for the messaging in today's youth programming.

A mixed political bag

Nick Gorki recounts that participating in "Generation 9/11," in which he recounts his coming out as gay, was both "therapeutic" and enlightening for him. Prior to the documentary, Gorki says, "9/11 was something I didn't like to talk about a lot, because it was a sore subject with so many people, not just in my life but adults in general." 

He continued, "Being one of the first generations to not have any memories of 9/11, it felt intimidating to ask about something that was so fresh in people's minds, especially something so traumatic for many people."

The young subjects of "Generation 9/11" present a unique microcosm of the political diversity, not to mention diversity of lived experience and cultures, of the greater post-9/11 generation. Notably, other subjects, cohorts who also lost their fathers in the attacks, seemed to feel somewhat differently from him on the issues, including post-9/11 Islamophobia. One of the subjects, a young man from a military family in Texas, at one point defends the racial profiling that notoriously happens at airports because there are "a lot of bad people in the Middle East." 

Another subject, Claudia Szurkowski, whose godfather is a police officer, criticizes the harshness of the criminal justice system and says she intends to enter the legal profession to help fix this. But her family also waves a Blue Lives Matter flag on their porch. She slams calls to defund and abolish the police — which have stemmed from concerns about outsized police budgets and endemic police violence — as wrongheaded and dangerous. 

Like Gorki, Szurkowski told Salon she'd made a conscious effort to not let 9/11 shape her political views. "Recently getting into politics, I made sure to do my research and check all sides and hear all opinions and make the choice for myself without thinking about the attacks," she said. Still, Szurkowski emphasized the importance of remembering 9/11 and the thousands of families it devastated, adding, "History is bound to repeat itself if we forget."

"Overall I am angry and very confused on a constant basis," Szurkowski said. "I am angry at the fact that this had to happen to my family, and that I lost the opportunity to even have a so-called normal family." But despite this anger, Szurkowski continues to move forward each day. "The documentary has shown me how independent and mature I am, and how to embrace my story and not shy from it," she said.

The post-9/11 generation faces some of the greatest political and economic catastrophes in our country's history that directly or indirectly extend from the events of 9/11. This has naturally made many members of this generation more open-minded about solutions involving wealth redistribution and other sweeping reforms, or seeking inspiration from other countries. Despite this, "Generation 9/11" highlights how young people ultimately remain a politically mixed bag. 

With an endless war, endless turmoil

Twenty years ago, 9/11 marked a turning point, an inception of two Americas, one of which was engulfed in flags, the national anthem and the warmth of an almost unprecedented sort of unity. The other America, for brown people and those perceived to be Muslim or "other," was engulfed in violent bigotry, surveillance, and a devastating rash of Islamophobic hate crimes that continues to this day. Directly after, ICE was formed under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to combat terrorism and perceived foreign threats. Fundamental privacy rights of all Americans eroded, and racial profiling of nonwhite people in the U.S. escalated.

In a similar vein, many members of the pre and post-9/11 generations live in two entirely different post-9/11 Americas, too. Many older Americans still associate 9/11 with intense fear and loss, which caused the country to come together and even briefly view Rudy Giuliani as an American hero, not a disbarred national disgrace. In contrast, today's young people, including many millennials and Gen Zers alike, view 9/11 as the beginning of one of the most devastatingly consequential events of our lives: an endless war.

It's a well-known statistic that for $63 billion per year, the U.S. could make public college tuition-free. America has spent $2 trillion on the war in Iraq alone on the taxpayer dime, as of 2020. A 2019 report found the U.S. had spent $6.5 trillion on all wars in the Middle East

Suffice it to say, many millennials and zoomers, who share in a $1.7 trillion ocean of student loan debt, aren't exactly enthused by how the post-9/11 wars have shaped America's spending priorities over the last two decades. In contrast, more than half of young Americans support tuition-free public college, per a 2019 survey.

And as today's young people watch the world burn around them, it's not lost on this more environmentally conscious generation that the U.S. military has become one of the world's biggest polluters. Climate change stands at the top of the list of young people's (ages 18 to 25) concerns about global issues, and the U.S. military creates 750,000 tons of toxic waste each year, in the form of depleted uranium, oil, jet fuels, pesticides, defoliants, lead and other chemicals. Our armed forces comprise a bigger polluter than 140 countries combined, yet, it's individual consumers who are chastised and told to not drink from plastic straws, somehow use neither plastic bags nor tote bags, and acquire costly electric cars.

In the 2020 presidential election, young people between 18 and 39 rejected Donald Trump by a wider margin than any other age group. The Trump era itself is a notable consequence of the events of 9/11, and the racist fears this national tragedy awakened in many older white people of anyone and anything foreign or "other." 

For a period of time during Trump's presidency, migrant families were deliberately separated to cruelly discourage border crossings, leading to the advent of the political rallying cry, "Abolish ICE.". For many young Americans, this is more than a slogan: One YouGov survey found 51% of adult voters ages 20 to 37 say they distrust ICE, compared with about 40% of voters from older generations.

All of this — from the student loan debt crisis, to impending climate catastrophe, to the horrors of the Trump era — are emblematic of the dramatic shift in national priorities post-9/11. The misguided patriotism the tragedy stoked among older generations yielded broad support for costly, endless wars, and has amounted to disastrous outcomes that young people more than any other generation must now reckon with.

If today's young people seem cynical, even put off by the traditionally patriotic displays of the 20th anniversary of this national tragedy, consider the unique, generational circumstances in which they've come of age. Their patriotism may be self-critical, sometimes a hybrid of nasty snark and unwavering compassion — but it's patriotism, all the same.

Still, despite watching the world burn around them, the post-9/11 generation doesn't lead a joyless existence. They've more than retained their sense of humor, inventing new ways to organize their communities, and finding comfort and laughter in surprising places. This is the sort of optimism Nick Gorki certainly embraces, especially since wrapping "Generation 9/11."

"I've picked up journaling since the documentary," he recounts to Salon. "I found that having something to just recall the day, and think in the bigger picture of the day, has helped me tremendously in finding gratitude for little things."

More from Salon on the 20th anniversary of September 11: 

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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