9/11 and millennials — time for a new direction
© Photo credit: No One Left Behind/ Matt Zeller (left) and Janis Shinwari, his interpreter, in Afghanistan in 2008.

On September 10, 2001 Kristin Oakley was in 8th grade in Westchester, NY, 45 minutes from Manhattan. That weekend, her father had taken the family boating on Lake Oscawana. She was 13 and thought about backpacking in Europe after graduation. Beyond that, she didn’t think often about the world outside of New York.

On that same day, 6,700 miles away, Omaid Sharifi donned his school uniform, which included a turban, and attended school in Taliban controlled Kabul. The atmosphere was one of hopelessness – Like many in Kabul, Omaid yearned for freedom, but the notion of opposing the Taliban was unthinkable after witnessing multiple public decapitations. His community lived in terror, and though he dreamed of leaving, his future, he knew, was likely in Kabul.


Back in New York, Matt Zeller attended class at Hamilton College. He had his whole life figured out — he was at a top school studying political science, would graduate with honors and pursue a law degree, then run for office, and make a fortune along the way.

In the United Kingdom, Muddassar Ahmad was living in London, attending a local college, and active in his community. He was finding his identity as a British Muslim. Tony Blair had just been elected and London was enjoying an era of optimism and inclusion. All ethnicities and faiths were accepted and integrated into a diverse mosaic known as “Cool Britania”. Faith wasn’t targeted and differences were celebrated.

On September 10th, Muddassar, Matt, Omaid, and Kristin didn’t imagine their futures would be hijacked by the global war or terror. Like most Millennials, they didn’t envision a struggle against the forces of radicalization becoming one of the defining battles of their generation. The next day would change that. Muslims became feared and hated in the UK, America invaded Afghanistan, and friends and family members would perish in the attacks giving new purpose to the lives of survivors.

9/11 sought to divide America and “the West” by using fear to shatter the trust that binds our diverse and global community of values together. In the immediate aftermath we united to annihilate those responsible.

However, 15 years later we have failed to repair that trust or defeat radicalization and terror. Instead, we have allowed trends towards isolationism, nativism, and exclusion to deepen fissures along ethnic and religious fault lines while undermining our alliances and credibility on the global stage. The four subjects of this article agree we are no closer to winning the war on terror.

Some believe we are actually worse off, having destabilized a region, enabled new radicalization, and created dangerous associations between Islam and terror. It would appear our reactions to 9/11 are achieving the attack’s initial goals.

The experiences of our four subjects tell a different story. In the UK, Muddassar’s community involvement became a two-front battle against bigotry and hatred of Muslims and extremism in his own community. Today he runs a leading communications firm, Unitas, specializing on the interface between the Western and Islamic worlds.

Matt would enlist in the Army, work for the CIA, deploy to Afghanistan, and run for Congress. Today, he is the Founder and CEO of No One Left Behind, an organization that supports Afghan translators, our allies, in obtaining U.S. visas and resettlement in America, helping repair America’s image abroad.

Following the departure of the Taliban, Omaid founded ArtLords, a nonprofit using art to combat radicalization and corruption in Afghanistan. He paints murals on Kabul’s blast walls depicting gigantic watchful eyes accompanied by the slogan “we see you”. In 2001, standing up for freedom was an unthinkable risk for Omaid, now, standing by in fear is just as unthinkable.

In New York, Kristin spent the following months scouring hospitals for information about her father who worked in the World Trade Center. Her plans to backpack Europe would take a back seat to seeking answers. Today, she works in the Pentagon strengthening our cooperation with allies though US-NATO joint and multinational war planning.

All four acknowledge that we understand the threat better now. 9/11 revealed that we could not contain or isolate terror and radicalization. In the age of globalization, an attack on NY inspires terror in London and radical ideas cross borders at the speed of light, taking root in the minds of young people anywhere with an Internet connection.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” — the same is true of terror and radicalization. Our best path is therefore one that includes cooperation with actors beyond our national borders, including our NATO allies, neighboring countries, and partners in the Islamic world.

When asked how we should move forward, all four emphasized tolerance and understanding. Matt hoped our legacy would be service, civic engagement and an 80 percent voter turnout. Kristin focused on the need for global citizens capable of finding common ground across cultural divides.

Studies conducted by Pew, Neil Howe and William Strauss (Authors of Millennials Rising), and others indicate the values they articulate – service, global citizenship, tolerance, and understanding – are emblematic of Millennials at large. We are more tolerant, globally aware and service-oriented than previous generations, and thus capable of walking this path.

Today, millennials are the largest voting demographic in America, which means we can choose to walk this path. If we fail to make this choice and instead allow misunderstanding and intolerance to lead us down the path of isolation or division, then we will be giving those who perpetrated the attack the victory they hoped for.

Daniel Bennett is an Associate Director at the Atlantic Council managing the Millennium Leadership Program, which seeks to build a global community of rising leaders, ages 25-35, and elevate their voices on key policy issues.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.