Physical distance from 9/11 causes emotional distance for Millennials

Living far from the dangers of the terrorist attacks left some young Americans unaffected by the tragedy.

by Ashley Bright

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, high school sophomore Desiree Medrano, then 15, sat down to take a geometry test in her Anchorage, Alaska, classroom. The test had barely begun when her math teacher stopped the class and turned on the television, just in time to witness a plane fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Medrano says that, other than getting a break in school, the events of 9/11 did not affect her, and it was not until years later that she fully understood the tragedy. As a young student living far from New York and Washington, D.C., she said her initial reaction could only be gauged against reports on TV and the reactions of her parents and teachers.

“At the time, I didn’t really care, it didn’t hit us as much,” she said. “It was just us watching TV, thinking ‘OK that’s happening in New York.’ We didn’t know.”

According to a recent survey by American University’s School of Communication, almost 30 percent of those surveyed — who were between 9 and 18-years-old on 9/11 — say the attacks did not change their lives. The survey results suggest that for some of the nation’s youth, physical distance from the attacks contributed to emotional distance from the events.

The survey also found that in nine states, the majority of respondents said that 9/11 did not change their lives. Most of those nine states are rural — including Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Washington — and none of them are on the East Coast.

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Maddie Roberts, now a college junior, arrived at her school in Mound, Minn., as the first plane hit in New York. Roberts, then 11, recalls being too young to fully understand the situation, but thinks distance influenced her reaction. She describes the atmosphere in her classroom that day as one of confusion and indifference.

“I knew that a lot of people were hurt, but it was very far away,” she said. “They were telling us, ‘you’ll remember this forever,’ but we didn’t really know why.”

A 2003 study by the Archives of Pediatric Medicine found that young people’s distance from the attacks affected their emotional state in the months following 9/11, most particularly in girls.

The study, conducted from July to Nov. 2001, interviewed people aged 18 to 26 in the months before and after the terrorist attacks. The survey was a continuation of a pre-existing study about stress in young adults. Among several factors considered for the study was distance from the attack.

“Close proximity increased the likelihood of being affected” the authors wrote. “Distance impacted our findings related to sadness, psychological distress, contact with friends, and trust in government.”

Moreover, risk of sadness gradually increased among women between the West and East Coasts.

Looking back, Medrano thinks her reaction would have been different had she lived closer to the attacks. She said the only source of information was TV reports, so the events were practically a world away.

“As the years pass you realize, wow, this actually happened and I didn’t react the way I should have,” she said.

A study from The New England Journal of Medicine found that children, aged 5 to 18, who lived farther from the World Trade Center had less stress symptoms in the days following the attacks than those in close proximity. Of the respondents living within 100 miles of the attack, 52 percent showed stress symptoms, as compared to 26 percent of those living up to 1,000 miles away.

Distance, of course, doesn’t always play such a large factor. Eric Hoffman, who was a 15-year-old high school student in Austin, Texas, at the time, found out about the events in the parking lot before class. He remembers watching the coverage all day during school. And he described his classroom’s mood as somber, sad and disbelieving.

“We were a little bit further removed from the situation, obviously,” he said. “But we all still understood what was going on and the implications.”

Although proximity did have an effect on understanding, reactions and stress level in some young Americans, it seemed to have had no impact on the fear of another attack. The majority of those surveyed by American University — more than 72 percent — said they are “not too worried” or “not worried at all” that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism. That percentage held steady across all regions of the country.

Emily Edens, a native of Oklahoma City, counts herself as one of the nearly 24 percent of survey respondents that are “somewhat worried” about another attack, and she has no doubt that her location affected her reaction to 9/11 — but not because of proximity to the attacks.

“Actually, the Oklahoma City bombing was still very fresh in people’s minds,” she said. “So we were more sensitive I think. Everyone’s parents came and picked them up right away.”

Edens knows 9/11 affected her emotionally, but even in an environment of heightened sensitivity, she admits she didn’t fully comprehend the tragedy until much later.

“It didn’t affect me any more than the average 13-year-old,” she said.

Desiree Medrano did end up making up that geometry test the next day. And although she says she now understands and thinks about the significance of 9/11, back then she was just a kid, excited to be skipping a test.