Kevin Gaston had just started his freshman year at Amherst College
in Massachusetts in the fall 2001. He was 18 at the time. On Sept.
9, as part of a freshmen orientation program, he and some new
friends traveled to New York City, where they stood atop one of
the twin towers of the World Trade Center and peered down into
the canyon below, otherwise know as Manhattan.
days later, on Sept. 11, he was back in Amherst when two hijacked
planes crashed into the twin towers. "It didn't frighten me, because
I knew that my family and friends and everything were in Georgia."
What frightened him, he said, were all the people from New York
City at his school who were crying, frantic because phone reception
was nonexistent in their small college town and the students couldn't
He had a friend in New York with whom he had been instant messaging
(IM) on a computer in the morning. "My friend IM'd me and
asked, 'Kevin, why are there people jumping out of the World Trade
Center?'" Kevin suggested she try to find answers on the
Internet. Twenty minutes later, another plane slammed into the
second tower, and she promptly reported this development to her
Sept. 11 was a wake-up call, said Gaston. "It made paranoia
when there was no paranoia beforehand."
According to one survey, many young adults age 16 to 25 suffered
serious bouts of psychological distress after Sept 11. The study
from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of
Medicine in 2003 was based on interviews with about 2,900 young
people before Sept. 11 and about 4,200 after that day.
Before the disaster, about one of every 10 male respondents reported
sadness at least some portion of a week, compared with roughly
four in 10 for those interviewed after Sept. 11. Among women,
43 percent reported sadness before Sept. 11 and 53 percent afterward.
That same report also said young people ranked religious faith
and spiritual life as more important soon after the attacks. Moreover,
respondents interviewed after Sept. 11 were more likely to agree
with these statements: "I trust the federal government,"
"I trust the state government," and "I trust local
"Everyone rallied around Bush," said Alden Smith, 23.
"His approval ratings shot up. [Sept. 11] made people proud
of their country, proud of everything that the U.S. stands for."
Like Gaston, Smith was only a week or two into his freshman year
in college during the attacks. He had just returned to his dorm
from class when he flipped on the TV and learned immediately what
"My first reaction when it first happened was one of total
shock," Smith said. "I couldn't believe something like
this could have happened, especially on that scale." There
was talk about planes heading to Los Angeles, where Smith's brother
lives, so that worried him as well.
Smith said even before Sept. 11, he read the news because of
his interest in political science, which he majored in at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The events of Sept.
11 compelled him to read more. He wanted to know where the hate
came from and why people would do this.
"And it's still something I can't understand to this day.
I think a lot of people struggle in understanding radical, extreme
Islam," said Smith, who now works as a legal assistant in
At the time, he scoured the Internet to learn more. He wasn't
alone. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project,
more than 50 percent of 18 to 29 year olds used the Internet to
get news about the attacks.
Smith said he still tracks how Sept. 11 is playing out on the
global stage, including the American toppling of the Taliban regime
in Afghanistan in 2001, as well as the current U.S. occupation
in Iraq, which Smith said has cancelled the U.S. sense of pride
in the government and in President Bush that was so palpable after
Nineteen-year-old Julie Ackerman said she believes the protracted
fighting in Iraq has actually endangered America and makes the
country feel vulnerable. She remembers that day in high school
when teachers and students crowded around the TV, realizing the
Twin Towers were gone.
"I couldn't have said it then, but I think now, it really
just makes me realize how ignorant we are," she said. "The
United States has this idea that we can handle anything, that
no one is better than us, that we're better than everybody. And
that's just not true. Things do happen and we're not completely
safe, and we need to be prepared."
Now a theater major at Whittier College in San Diego, Ackerman
said she doesn't worry about terrorism on a daily basis, only
thinking about it when someone else raises the subject.
Gaston, who now lives in Atlanta and works in the financial sector,
said he isn't anxious either since he doesn't believe Atlanta
is a prime target.
Smith, who works for a law firm right beside the White House,
said he is not overly concerned because he believes Washington,
D.C. is well-protected from terrorism. "I've got confidence
in the government's ability to stop it."
Monique Cooper, 21, on the other hand, doesn't feel safe. "I'm
not walking on egg shells," she said, but added that she
worries racial profiling hinders the government's ability to prevent
crimes of any sort.
When the attacks occurred, Cooper was a high school junior with
many friends of Middle Eastern descent. "And I noticed right
off the bat how they were looked at differently because of the
assumption that they had something to do with it," she said.
Stereotyping Middle Easterners and Arabs as terrorists neglects
society's real killers, she said, referring to the Washington,
D.C. area sniper attacks of 2002. The two men subsequently convicted
of murder were not Middle Eastern but black, said Cooper, who
is also black.
Security measures are meant to protect the United States, "but
when it comes to a point where you're offending your citizens
in order to protect your nation, then you're defeating the purpose,"
said Cooper. "A lot of the effects that [Sept. 11] had on
me had to do with how I notice that it affected other people around