9/11 attacks shaped world for those who were young at the time

Winnie the Pooh was there for Brittany Anderson-Severi on Sept.11, 2001.

Something just wasn’t right for the 8-year-old.

Sesame Street was preempted, she recalled. Cartoons were off the air, all of them.

Nothing but wall-to-wall coverage of something happening on the other side of the country. It was a concept that the San Bernardino County youngster was having trouble grasping.


“I was just trying to go back to my day,” said Anderson-Severi, who now lives in Riverside. “My parents were upset all day. But I was trying to return to normal, because I couldn’t quite process it.”

On one hand, she knew something “really bad” had happened — even her stoic father, a former Army captain, was unnerved.

This would take an extreme measure. A Winnie the Pooh VHS tape. Press play and on ambled Pooh-bear, bringing with him a fleeting escape from the images unfolding on every channel.

Little Brittany and millions of her generational peers could not have known how the nightmare unfolding on live TV would change the world they would grow up in.

Some were toddlers, others in middle and high school, many were about to move on to college and career. For young people, the future had just been dealt an unforeseen jolt.

Flash forward 20 years.

The anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks approach, rekindling the stunning, sorrowful, mind-bending memories of the deadliest day on U.S. soil, moments that left an indelible imprint of the psyche of wee Americans who would go on to grow up in the shadow of the U.S. “war on terror.”

Many are still processing. Now in their 30s and 40s, they have found themselves reflecting in recent weeks on how 9-11 changed the course of their lives — and their nation.

They were reminded last week, watching scenes of horror broadcast from a chaotic airport in Kabul, that lives are still being lost in the fight on terror.

They grapple still with memory of the day that set it all in motion — and how it reshaped their world.

Perhaps Pooh helped her feel safer on that morning two decades ago, but Anderson-Severi says she came to realize that any sense of safety, sincerely, can be fleeting.

The 9/11 attacks — followed by such violence as the bloody Dec. 2, 2015 assault launched by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, and the gunning down of  dozens of people in Las Vegas seven years later –– have morphed into a painful lesson.

“It made me more aware that things can change — your whole life, your whole sense of reality,” she said.

Brittany Anderson-Severi, 28, of Riverside was eight when the twin towers went down in 2001. Her father taught her always make sure you have an exit plan where ever you are and every situation in Riverside on Monday, August 30, 2021. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

She knew Daniel Kaufman, one of the San Bernardino victims, and she knew someone injured in the stampede that followed the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre. “They can change overnight.”

Her enduring philosophy, reinforced by her father: We all must be prepared. For change. For danger. For anything.

“It’s always on my mind,” she said, referring to a kind of “hyperawareness.”

“I’m always thinking about things like that.”

Some Americans would take on the concept of protecting the U.S. in a hands-on way. Some became law officers. Many joined the military.

“So many people changed their lives,” said Tom Porter, who served in U.S. Navy Reserve, including deployments to Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf as a public affairs officer He now leads the government relations team for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which advocates for U.S. service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It changed the direction of my life,” said Porter, raised in San Bernardino. “That day changed my world view.”

As it happens, Raymond Cheung was already in the service when the terrorists struck.

Three days after graduating high school in Arcadia in 1998, Cheung was in a Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. He’d become a reservist, all the while studying and working his way through UCLA, with plans to become a teacher.

Then the twin towers fell.

“That day, I had this immense feeling of  helplessness,” he said. “Watching that and wanting to help and not having the ability to do so. That was very frustrating for me.”

“9/11 upended everything,” he said.

Raymond Cheung, left, staging just outside the Iraqi border before his unit breached a berm (3/20/03, Courtesy Raymond Cheung)

Motivated by an intense inner need to help, by 2003 he would find himself on the front end of the nation’s deployment in Iraq.

Cheung became part of a team of Marines on the front line of efforts to rebuild Iraq’s cities and bolster its civil affairs.

He won’t soon forget the Hazmat-like suits — known in the military as Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear —  they were forced to wear at the time, given the omnipresent talk of weapons of mass destruction and chemical warfare.

It was a long way from a teaching career. As Cheung put it, 9/11 “flipped the script” of his life plan.

It would take a while, but he’d find his way back to education, where he’s now a school board member for the Arcadia Unified School District.

Not surprisingly, when he returned home, he’d also begin a career in emergency management.

“It’s interesting to have this experience and seeing the news and know what it’s like and still kind of get that feeling of helplessness. I see my fellow Marines in Afghanistan … . It’s kind of gut wrenching to see those pictures.”

Other Americans found  themselves immersed in the 9/11 attacks and their impact back on the homefront.

Los Angeles native Louis Keene turned 10 on Sept. 10, 2001.

It would not be long before Keene would develop an academic interest in the undercurrents of American life forged by 9/11: Such movies and TV shows as “24” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” The way the media cover news international and domestic. How people who keep of safe — from the military to local law enforcement — shifted their priorities. All arguably rooted in the 9/11 attacks.

“I remember the day vividly, and it’s been an object of my fascination ever since,” he said.

Keene focused on the attacks and their cultural context all the way through college. They helped motivate his career as a journalist.

Louis Keene, 31 on September 10, stands next to the TV stand of the original tv where he watched the tragedy unfold with his parents 20 years ago, on Monday, August 30, 2021.The Keenes strictly controlled their children’s television time and rolled the TV out of their closet only at special moments like elections. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

He acknowledges that heightened readiness has become part of the fabric of our lives. But he is old enough, he says, to remember a time when such measures weren’t considered essential.

“It’s hard for me to feel like I’m safer,” he said, “because of all the security measures that have been imposed on our lives.”

A seventh-grader in 2011, Norco resident Shaheen Nassar could sense, even at that age, a different world evolving.

An American Muslim, Nassar knew life had abruptly shifted.

“I had that feeling I was hoping it would not be blamed on a Muslim,” he said. “There was a sense of sorrow of what was going to happen to us after this moment.”

Indeed, as Nassar noted, Islam went from often being mysterious and misunderstood in American society to suddenly “hypervisible.”

Many would unleash their anger, and their Islamaphobia, on people who looked like Nassar.

By the end of 2001, the FBI reported a 1,600% increase in Anti-Muslim hate incidents in 2001.

Nassar saw it first-hand that day when while he and his mother were driving on the freeway. A man at the wheel of a big truck wove through traffic, mad-dogging them, glaring at them, intimidating them.

Ultimately, the man flashed an obscene hand gesture and sped off.

“I reciprocated,” he said, despite his mother’s protestations.

“That was when I knew our community, like other communities of color .. that we could be subjected to extreme violence,” said Nassar, who would ultimately come to question American interventionism. That belief would foster his role as a policy and advocacy coordinator for the Los Angeles branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Today, for kids growing up a couple of decades after that mournful morning, 9/11 is a history lesson — and a daily reality.

In the San Fernando Valley, Sun Valley Magnet School history teacher Stephen Franklin and his leadership class of 6th- through 12th-grade students have been busy lately creating a massive 9/11 Exhibit in the school’s auditorium.

The display includes scale models of the World Trade Center towers, a mock-up of an airport terminal, and a 15-foot tall American flag — on which the students have hand-written the names of the nearly 3,000 victims on that day.

Students also built exhibits memorializing the attack on the Pentagon and the Flight 93 crash in rural Pennsylvania.

There is even a collection of Sept. 12, 2001 newspaper front pages from across the country. With accompanying displays looking at the Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a whirlwind walk through American history since 9/11, he said.

Sun Valley Magnet School’s leadership class members Samantha Mazariegos, Ema Lira, Gaby Romero, and Brenda Jimenez with teacher Stephen Franklin with their multimedia experience that serves as a memorial and museum for the tragic events of September 11, 2001. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The effort, Franklin said, is meant to promote a “never forget” mentality — but also to remind visitors of tolerance.

Then 27, Franklin was three years into his education career on 9/11. He knew the attacks would change the course of his teaching.

Civics — and the lessons of the terror attacks — would from then on always be a part of his work.

“It seems to me that if there’s an event that is so moving and so impactful in so many ways, either the event itself or what comes from the event — like bringing us into two wars, changing the way we do security — the story needs to be carried on, while there’s still people alive who witnessed it,” he said.

Young people, he said, still take a keen interest, because the attack was so surreal and because so much of American life was diverted in new directions that day.

Heightened security at a ball game? A passport to get across the border?

“They do follow a path back to 9/11,” he said.

So do the memories of a generation of Southern Californians who grew up with its echoes.

The 20-year mark comes at a sensitive time for Cheung, as he’s watched from afar the United States’ tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“I get that feeling of helplessness again, he said, remembering those early days back in 2001, when he was determined to deploy. “I wish I could help. I wish I could do more.”

But he’s also mindful of what an entire generation has lived through.

“All the kids who grew up after Columbine and 9/11, both of the events were very life-altering for that generation in terms of their attitude.,” he said. “The loss of innocence, I suppose.”

Pondering the lives of those kids, he paused a moment. He thought about today’s kids.

“They have never had a life where they didn’t have to worry about an active shooter,” he said, “or they didn’t have friends who went halfway across the world and die for their country.”

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