For UF students, 9/11 memories linger, but war is just a fact of life


Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:18 p.m.

When the first jetliner struck the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., Seamus Seery was standing in his kitchen on Long Island, nearly 60 miles away from the fiery explosion.

“I remember standing there, my sister behind me, just staring at the TV,” said Seery.

His mom slumped against the kitchen counter, watching “Good Day New York” in silence. The TV screen showed the burning tower, smoke billowing out like fat, lazy puffs from a chimney.

He recalls feeling lost and confused as he stood with his backpack on, ready to leave for elementary school.

He was in the second grade.

Now an 18-year-old student at the University of Florida, Seery is part of a generation who have come of age without ever knowing peace.

To them, the country has always had a massive military presence in the Middle East.

The United States has always been at war with someone in that part of the world.

This past week was the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But no one on the UF campus protested the war. No one, in fact, seemed particularly interested. The fallout from the war in Iraq has become background noise. The anniversary passed as smoothly and unremarkably as a sunset.

***

In the 12 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there’s still one image that will never leave Emily Warnock: People leaping from the burning towers.

“I remember the people jumping out the window and being confused,” said the UF student, who was a fifth-grader in Palm Harbor that day.

“At the time, I must have thought, ‘Oh, they’ll hit the water and they’ll be fine. Or there’ll be a trampoline to catch them. They won’t actually hit the ground.’ ”

UF student Amy Ewald also was in a fifth-grade class in South Florida. She remembers when the news broke of the attack.

“Our teacher got a call on her phone, I remember that,” she said. “She left the room to take it, and I’m pretty sure she was crying out in the hall.”

Ewald, now 21, said that when her teacher re-entered the classroom, she told everyone to quiet down.

She turned on classroom TV and announced that they’d be watching the news for the rest of the day. “This is an important event that we need to witness,” she said.

When the second plane crashed into the tower, Ewald and her entire class had their eyes fixed on the smoldering wreck.

“I’m surprised they had us watching it,” Ewald recalled. “I’m very surprised.’’

Leah Longo, 21, sat with Warnock and Ewald on the UF campus. She said she couldn’t remember anything specific about 9/11, but she listened to her friends piece together their memories.

Longo didn’t realize it was the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.

“It’s never going to go away, there’ll always be war,” she said. “Why is one war more important than another?”

***

It’s not that today’s college-age students don’t remember, said Daniel O’Neill, an associate professor in the UF political science department, it’s that — structurally — they can’t.

O’Neill pinpoints two major reasons why there is no sustained acknowledgement on campus of the war compared to the student protests during the Vietnam War era.

“First, and most importantly, there is no draft,” said O’Neill.

College students then had to think very concretely about the Vietnam War, the 46-year-old O’Neill said, because of the strong chance they would be fighting in it.

“They had to ask themselves, ‘What do I think? Is the war good? Is it bad?’ The vast majority of college students today didn’t have to ask themselves that in a direct and personal way,” he said.

O’Neill said the second reason students aren’t keenly sensitive to America being at war is the 2007 global economic meltdown, the effects of which are still being felt.

“A lot of time and energy was taken up worrying about future livelihood, not the war,” he said. “People care more about the things that will directly affect their lives.’’

In fall 2003, O’Neill was hired by UF after completing graduate work on the U.S. West Coast. He said college campuses nationwide were teeming with debate.

“It was a very big deal,” he said. “There were globalized protests, local protests. There was very lively debate both for and against the invasion of Iraq.”

O’Neill said he thinks the pace of life also plays a role in evaporating concern for the war.

“The 24-hour news cycle doesn’t give time for critical reflection,” he said. “As a culture, we’re less given to reflection on how we got into Iraq and whether it was a good idea. And, frankly, those who have (given reflection) are deeply skeptical now and mistrust the decision more.”

***

“I honestly thought it was going to be fine,” Seery recalled. “I didn’t realize the towers were going to collapse. I didn’t realize it was a terrorist attack.”

No one told him what was happening, that his father, who worked in the Lehman Brothers building in Manhattan, could be in serious danger.

Seery said his mom just shoveled him and his sister out the front door to catch the bus. “She probably wanted to figure out what was happening with my dad and assumed we’d be safe at school,” he explained.

When the second jetliner crashed into the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m., Seery had just arrived at school. But there was no unusual activity. Class started late — that was the only disruption in the day.

For about an hour, his teacher huddled with two other administrators in the front of the room and whispered nervously. In hindsight, they may have been trying to decide whether they should tell a classroom full of second-graders about the tragedy, he said.

He can’t remember specifics from there.

He took the bus home. He watched cartoons, did his homework, went to bed around 8:30 p.m. His mom never explained where his dad was and he never suspected anything abnormal. When he woke up the next morning, his dad was home safe.

Seery decided to share his story now. He said that in the past, his experience didn’t feel significant compared to other kids connected to 9/11 whose families had fared worse.

On campus, he feels the wars, including the ongoing war in Afghanistan, hold even less significance. “I don’t know if it matters still on campus,” he said. “We can’t really affect anything.”

But the 9/11 attacks and the resulting years of turmoil remain watershed moments that changed his thinking forever.

“I’ll always remember seeing the smoke pouring from the building on TV,” he said. “And I have a huge mistrust for any kind of authority now.”

***

Across the Plaza of the Americas, 63-year-old Bob Cohen sat and watched the crowd. He’s been eating out here for about 20 years. “I love Krishna lunch,” he said. “I’m a vegetarian.”

He was in seventh grade when his generation’s defining moment occurred: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“No one forgets that,” he said. “I remember being shocked.”

Kennedy’s death, Cohen said, became a symbol for questioning values.

“It opened up the door to us questioning ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said. “Whereas the impulse for the U.S. to rush to war closed the door. It damaged the opportunity for a real philosophical pause.”

Similar to O’Neill, Cohen believes the lack of a draft in place of a volunteer-based military accounts for the smaller and less consistent student interest in the wars.

“Think about this,” he said. “If slaughterhouses were made of glass walls, we’d have more people at Krishna lunch” he said. “Same thing goes for a draft.”

He scanned the field.

“If there was a draft,” he said, “it’d be like the ’60s again.”

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