I’m turning 30 next year. I was 16 when the towers fell, so I’ve spent about half my life living in the shadow of their absence. As such, it’s a little hard for me to get perspective on how things were before, because sometimes I can’t tell if I’m being nostalgic, or if things were genuinely different.
But I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies and TV, because to do what I do I sort of have to act as a sponge for narratives and devices of all kind, and slowly I’ve felt something accumulating inside me, a sedimentation at the back of my head. And I frequently wonder if this isn’t just in my head but inside of everyone’s, or perhaps the larger generational mind, a tumor growing in the zeitgeist – or maybe it is the zeitgeist itself, I’m not sure.
For a brief moment after 9/11, pure, basic, unadultered good versus evil stories prevailed, fantastical tales where the bad guys were ugly and wore black, and the good guys were colorful and obviously kind. Hence why The Lord of the Rings made it onto every Oscar ballot in numerous categories, and swept them in 2003, despite being (as I have found upon rewatch), pretty cheesy and not completely solid movies, in any sense.
But as the years passed, and as we as a global community tried to fix the various world wrongs that became so blatantly apparent 12 years ago, we started to reject that narrative. It didn’t work for us. It was like we’d opened ourselves up and tried to put an organ inside ourselves that just didn’t belong there, and we fell to our knees and vomited it up.
We found we needed something different instead. And when we figured out what that thing was, we flocked to it.
It’s tough for me to think of a movie that’s more seeped in the taint of 9/11 than The Dark Knight. I saw it 6 times in the theater when it came out, but I feel increasingly ambivalent about the movie as I get more distance on it: I dislike its unearned tragedy, its forced misanthropy, the way its main characters feel like passive ragdolls being buffeted by an overpowering wind. I dislike its cold, abstracted, distant city, bereft of plant life and goodwill, full of shadows and suspicion. I dislike the movie’s helplessness, and the way the movie’s environment feels seeded with inexplicable explosives and violence and pain.
And I dislike how the movie, in some fashion, rejects heroics: the average people of this movie genuinely hate and fear the protagonist, who voluntarily collects more and more of this rejection as the movie goes on, unilaterally doing what he feels is right even though throngs of civilians scream at him to stop. The antagonist they accept, maybe even understand: their position is not, “Everyone must do whatever they can to find and stop this monster,” but rather, “There is a monster among us, yes, but why must you provoke him?”
They say this as if this monster and this hurt and this violence was always there, always will be there, and they just have to learn to live alongside it. The movie never really questions the monster: he is what he is. He is an thing, a force, not a person, and thus is eternal, and ever-present. And at the end, when the film limply tries to suggest that the monster may be wrong, the feeling one gets is that the film is not trying to convince the audience but is rather trying to convince itself – and failing.
It’s this sense of inevitable destruction, this floating paranoia and devout belief that disaster and massive, massive wrongdoing is unavoidable, that I think increasingly defines my generation, if not the world. It’s been 12 years since 9/11, and a horrific war rages on in the Middle East, and we’ve more or less retreated from most of the heroic postures we struck there less than a decade ago. It’s been 5 years since the financial crisis, and everyone who was responsible for it not only got away with it, but actively profited from it, punishing civilians while the authorities looked on, either helpless or attempting to assume the image of helplessness. And it’s been less than a year since we discovered that, yeah, actually, the government is recording every single thing you do. We haven’t yet experienced the consequences of this, not fully, but we all seem to agree that we will.
Today, the must-see TV event of the season is a show about a man whose inevitable death causes incredible, unimaginable suffering and hurt. We have watched this show for several seasons, knowing he would die, knowing that all the preventative measures he took would be repaid in pain. And what’s made this show so watchable is the feeling that everything is on the line, that anyone could die for any reason, however coincidental or pathetic: some of us watch convinced that most of the main characters and even ancillary characters will die, and the only question is whether the protagonist’s infant daughter will survive.
In our hearts, we feel the fates and furies watch us closely, and they have no talent for mercy.
This isn’t the only example of a narrative that captures – and perhaps exploits – this free-floating sense of dread. But why do we expose ourselves to such pain? Why is this, of all things, our entertainment? Why do we subject ourselves to narratives whose sole purpose seems sometimes to punish us?
Is it because, perhaps, we wish to experience all the ills of the world indirectly? Do we believe we are headed for inevitable destruction, and we wish to glimpse it first to ready ourselves for this end, like a person plummeting to their death, peeping through their fingers at the cement reaching up to them? Is this who we are now?
I remember when I went to Washington D.C. last year, and was walking the city at night, and I was trying to find the White House. I was coming from the Lincoln Memorial, and I got a bit mixed up, and wound up approaching the White House from the wrong side: I came to the backyard rather than the front, in other words.
The backyard of the White House features a wrought-iron fence and heavy shrubbery, so I had to walk a few feet to peer through to actually see the house. And when I did, I saw I wasn’t alone: there were two men in uniform standing in the darkness, among the leaves, and they were watching me very carefully, and somewhere in the shadows I saw the glint of assault rifles and combat gear.
That is the image I remember so clearly: the brilliant white house lit up many yards away, and there, in front of me, the black fence, the dark leaves, and the shadowed soldiers watching me, fingers near their triggers.
I walked away. I felt disturbed. But not, I think, as disturbed as I should have felt.
When we left the city, my boss, an older gentleman, remarked with an air of dismay that the city had changed so much. “When I was here, in the 60s and 70s,” he told me, “you could go anywhere, and no one would stop you. Everything was open.”
I found I couldn’t understand what he meant. The idea was inconceivable. Because while the armed guards had definitely threatened me, it never occurred to me that they could not be there. They had to be there, didn’t they? Didn’t they have to be there for what was coming, whatever that might be?
They call us Generation Y, but perhaps a more fitting title would be Generation Dread.