How the world has been changed

The children of Sept. 11, 2001, are getting their driver’s licenses this year.

Sixteen years have passed since a cloudless morning in the Eastern United States saw the world changed by men who chose to use airliners as missiles, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.

Many have compared the attacks to Dec. 7, 1941, the Pearl Harbor attack that saw nearly 2,500 people killed and drew the U.S. into World War II.

In 1957, the 16th year after Pearl Harbor, the United States was a few years removed from its next international shooting war, in Korea. There was a battle involving Great Britain, Israel and Egypt over Egypt’s nationalization of the strategic Suez Canal. The Russians launched Sputnik 1 in October and Sputnik 2 a month later, beginning the space race and raising concerns over the U.S.S.R.’s military might overtaking the United States. Vietcong guerrillas began a terror bombing campaign in South Vietnam, killing hundreds of that nation’s leaders. The Asian Flu pandemic struck and by some estimates killed 70,000 in the U.S. The three major TV networks brought Americans into their living rooms to watch shows they talked about with one another the next day.

In 2017, 16 years after Sept. 11, the U.S. saw the election of a president unaccepted by many and lauded by those who voted for him. The nation remains divided. On the Korean Peninsula, a dictator is rattling a nuclear sabre and raising fears that in the hindsight of history make Sputnik seem like nothing more than a beeping satellite. We know now that trying to intervene in Vietnam was an ill-conceived idea, despite the fears of 1957.

But the biggest difference is that, unlike World War II, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Americans and ended in about five years, we’re still fighting what began as the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, which has claimed thousands of American lives with apparent expansion of that war still a possibility, combining a sort of potential Vietnam with the kind of patriotic spirit that won World War II. The difference is that people in 16 years have lost much of that patriotic unified American fervor to get even, choosing instead to consider “America First” to mean something more domestic in nature.

Those 16-year-olds taking to the streets, the infants of Sept. 11, 2001, have grown up in a world that has always had the U.S. at war somewhere, where they know that as they slept in their cribs that something happened with airliners, where Americans have grown angry at the state of the nation, where they have never known life without a smartphone, nor have they the shared cultural phenomenon that was nightly network TV.

It’s not the hula-hoop and Frisbee world (it was unveiled to the public in 1957), but the world of social media-driven angst and fears of climate-change-driven storms replacing the Asian Flu as the pop-culture thing to be feared.

Sept. 11 changed the world, for sure. What today’s children of that day will do with it will be as interesting to see in 16 more years as it is to look back at what drove the world in 1957.