Sept. 11, 2001, was marked by the largest foreign attack on U.S. soil in modern history, when some 3,000 lives were lost.
The impact was widespread and enduring, a shared national experience unlike any since President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. A 2021 Pew survey found that 93% of those age 30 and older could remember exactly what they were doing when they learned that first one plane, and then a second, had crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
Some 238 mothers in Minnesota would never forget what they were doing that day: bringing children into a country forever changed.
Justin Anderson of Monticello, Minn., was around 5 years old when his parents told him about the day of his birth in the wee hours of Sept. 11.
“They said the nurses came in and told them to turn the TV on,” Anderson said. “The nurses were watching the TV. They were watching the TV. Everybody was in shock.”
These “9/11 babies” knew nothing of life before the attacks. But since others can’t help but react to learning of their notable birthday, they became repositories for how other people feel about the historic event.
For most Americans, 9/11’s impact was more a mind-set shift than a material change to their lifestyle. After the attacks, many felt anxious and depressed and feared more foreign assaults. The U.S. military launched its Global War on Terror, invading Afghanistan and Iraq.
Patriotism surged. As did anti-Muslim bias. Intelligence agencies’ surveillance increased, along with airport security measures. Post-9/11 kids would never experience dragging out a tearful goodbye all the way to the gate.
Now, more than two decades later, as 9/11 recedes into history, the changes it spurred feel less palpable. Fear of foreign attack has faded among Americans’ concerns, behind inflation, COVID-19 and domestic terrorism, which has proved a larger threat (more Americans have been killed by homegrown far-right extremists than Islamists).
And yet, for some of the Minnesotans born on 9/11, their personal association to the fraught date has had a significant impact on their lives — and continues to do so every year when September comes around.
Patriotism and peace
Anderson, who now runs his own company creating outdoor living spaces, believes his personal connection to Sept. 11 may have contributed to his strong sense of patriotism.
“I love my country and I’m very proud to be an American,” he said. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with it or just with the way I was brought up.”
Having married his high school sweetheart and become a father, Anderson speculated about how he might have reacted if his own children had been born during such a traumatic event.
“I definitely would have been saying prayers that my child is being brought into a peaceful world and doesn’t have to suffer too much because of all the uncertainty,” he said.
For Aurora Foxen, negative feelings about her 9/11/01 birthday began causing distress almost immediately. Foxen’s grandparents told her mother they believed the association was a sign from God that their granddaughter would be a bad child, leading to their estrangement.
Foxen remembers being about 7 years old when her teenage brother started teasing her as September approached.
“He would say, ‘Your birthday is special,’ but would never go into detail about why my birthday was special or why my birthday was so important,” she said. “And then he would tell me, ‘Never get on a plane when you’re older in case it’s déjà vu.'”
The taunts became far crueler at her Minneapolis middle school, when teachers started showing footage of the Sept. 11 attacks. The hurtful words have stuck with Foxen, who lives in Alexandria, Minn., and works at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities.
“Even with my 21st birthday coming up, I am not very excited,” she said. “When I celebrate my birthday, I hear a lot of people in my head call me a ‘terrorist baby’ and say I have links with Osama bin Laden.”
Bullies told Foxen she could never be a pilot — or even get on a plane because she’d end up stealing it and crashing it into another building. That wasn’t even the worst of it.
“Because I was born right as the second tower was falling, there were really, really mean people that were like, ‘I hope your mom was thinking about all the people that were dying while she was giving birth to you,'” Foxen said. “A lot of people told me I’m probably gonna die in a plane crash. They’d turn around in school when the videos were playing and tell me, ‘You caused this.’ I honestly wanted to commit suicide around every birthday because I could not handle it.”
Joseph Fahnbulleh was also taunted about his Sept. 11 birthday when he was growing up in the Twin Cities suburbs.
“They said I was an Osama baby,” recalled Fahnbulleh, now one of the world’s top sprinters — he finished fifth in the Tokyo Olympics 200m running for Liberia, his parents’ native country — and currently races for the University of Florida.
His childhood birthdays always had a somber tone, Fahnbulleh said, with people reminiscing about the attacks and his school observing a moment of silence. He said he remembered Muslim students tending to keep to themselves, perhaps due to the 9/11-related biases of their peers. “They made jokes about how Muslims like to bomb things,” he said. “It was bad. It was xenophobia.”
Fahnbulleh said that since the events of Sept. 11 didn’t affect him directly, he doesn’t feel a strong link to the attacks. But he avoids celebrating his birthday on the actual day and typically waits until the following weekend. “I feel like you should respect the people who passed and the families that were a part of it,” he said.
Skipping the celebration
Aubrey Milowski, a musician in Tempe, Ariz., feels relatively neutral about her personal connection to Sept. 11. Other people seem more affected by the coincidence than she is.
“People my age will think it is either funny or just odd or surprising,” she said. “People who are older, especially if they were 15 or older at the time of the attacks, will say, ‘I remember where I was’ and the conversation will take a more somber tone.”
Most people respond to learning her birthday by saying, “I’m sorry.”
“That’s the most common reaction, which I find strange,” Milowski said. “Because I’ve never felt that horrible. Obviously, the attacks themselves were horrible, but to me, it’s just when I was born.”
She thinks people assume the connection would take away from her birthday, or make her sad, but it doesn’t affect her that way — consciously at least. “I don’t really like birthday celebrations, which maybe subconsciously is linked,” she admitted.
Embracing the discomfort
Over the past 21 years, those born on 9/11/01 have become accustomed to managing the discomfort inherent to a day so strongly linked with both tragedy and joy.
“It’s a sad day, but it’s my birthday, so it’s kind of an awkward situation,” said Brooklin Jackson, a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who remembers celebrating with red, white and blue cupcakes when she was too young to have known about the attacks.
Every Sept. 11th, Jackson’s online feed is inundated with solemn tributes to the dead alongside cheerful birthday wishes, reflecting the stark dichotomy of the day’s personal and national significance. “On social media, there are a lot of posts about 9/11 — and a lot of posts about me.”
Hope and loss
While Kayla Doyle, who works as a nanny in Tempe, Ariz., acknowledges that her coincidental link to Sept. 11 is “definitely very weird,” she says that hearing people’s reflections about the day has heightened her sense of humility and perspective.
Growing up, Doyle’s father would put American flags at the end of their driveway every year. “He explained to me: Your birthday is very important. A lot of people lost their lives as you were gaining yours. You were a miracle at a very tragic time.”
At family birthday parties when she was younger, Doyle’s relatives would come over and talk about 9/11 and then just go on with her party. Their approach showed her how joy and tragedy can coexist in our lives, that we are capable of holding contradictory feelings.
Doyle and her cohort — a group whose lives started on a day where so many had theirs cut short — embody the importance of maintaining hope amid loss. And human connection can help us do that, Doyle explained, while reflecting on her shared birth date.
“I use it to remind myself that a lot of people go through a lot of stuff, and you should be respectful of that and take the time to listen,” she said. “I think it has helped me want to listen to people and hear their stories because it affected everybody that day.”
Rachel Hutton is a general assignment reporter in features for the Star Tribune.
This content was originally published here.