AMAC Exclusive – by Eleanor Vaughn
When I was two years old, the world ended. In a horrifying, brutal act of terrorism that would be replayed on TV for years to come, the Twin Towers fell. Here in Virginia, where I’m from, the Pentagon burned. Above a field in Pennsylvania, a group of passengers stopped a fourth plane from reaching its target. Almost 3,000 people died, and thousands more were injured. The streets were full of chaos, and everyone was terrified.
I was watching Blue’s Clues.
I don’t remember any of the day itself; I was only two, and my mom didn’t want to watch the news with me around. But I grew up on the stories. My brothers remember their classmates, many with parents who worked in the Pentagon, pulled out of school early. My dad took hours to drive the twelve miles between our house and D.C. My mom always said it was one of the prettiest days of the year, clear blue skies with the promise of fall on the horizon. My teachers taught about it every year of elementary school, dedicating part of every September 11th anniversary to showing documentaries of the terror of that awful day.
The strangest part, though, was that we were still there, even though the world had clearly ended. We were nothing more than post-apocalyptic survivors, like the dirt-smudged heroes of the zombie movies that I remember from my childhood. We heard about cities a world away that had been shattered, where men and women weren’t just risking their lives but losing them, day after day in a war that had been raging almost our whole lives. Yet in the classrooms and suburbs of Northern Virginia, we still had to do homework. It wasn’t that our lives continued in the wake of tragedy; they had started in the wake of tragedy. We weren’t keeping calm and carrying on, we were just living in the only world we had ever known.
There was a sense of unreality about the whole thing. I knew it was happening, and more or less why it was happening, yet the war was a backdrop more than anything else. I cried at homecoming videos, but there didn’t seem to be much point in questioning the costs of the war. Who questions gravity? The war was a constant. It had started before my memories did, and there was no reason to assume it would end before I did.
And then it stopped.
My first reaction was disbelief. Not the giddy disbelief of joy, but the cold, cynical “yeah right” of a Cassandra who’s been right too many times to get any satisfaction out of it anymore. I didn’t doubt any particular part of the exit strategy (although events have shown that somebody should have), but rather the very concept of exiting. It was unthinkable, as if MLB had announced that baseball was ending. It was an American institution, and now it was going to be over? Yeah, right.
Now, American troops have actually left Afghanistan for the first time in my memory. In some ways, its end is as hard to understand as the war itself was. It’s the ringing in your ears of sudden silence after tremendous noise. Even with all the faults and failings of the last few months, it’s officially over. Unofficially, there’s so much work to do. There will always be threats and dangers to our country, as we were so harshly reminded twenty years ago. But an era has ended, and more importantly, a new era is beginning.
What does a country do when it’s not at war? I wouldn’t know. I have hopes, though. Some are practical. I hope we can stay out of conflicts for a while, spending our time, energy, and focus on our own country. I hope we can build needed bridges and roads. I hope we can create good jobs at home, not ship them overseas.
I’ve got more romantic hopes, too, things that are more important in the long run than any one policy decision, though they’re probably harder to achieve. I hope that we can learn from the last twenty years, and put those lessons to work keeping our lives and our families safe. That our neighborhoods and communities can flourish. That our country, having ended its war abroad, won’t tear itself apart at home. Discussion and dissent have made America what it is, and we wouldn’t be the same without them, but with our current level of internal strife we won’t be able to build much of anything. I hope for contentment and the drive to reach new heights together, not the spreading of discord and fear by some groups simply to control others. I hope we can create ourselves an exciting and worthy future, not just tear down our past.
I don’t really know where we are headed or what we will be getting ourselves into. Nobody my age does. The world ended when I was so young, and now it’s ended again. The difference is, we’re not children anymore. My class graduated from college this year. We’re ready to begin something new. It’s the opportunity of our lifetimes, and more than anything, I hope we take full advantage of it. We’ve got a new world ahead of us, and it’s time to find out what we can make of it.
Eleanor Vaughn is a recent graduate of William & Mary and a current resident of Northern Virginia.