Fifteen years ago, the world watched as the deadliest terror attack in the history of the United States played out before their eyes.
The images are unforgettable, and the stories of those who died and those who rushed to the scene dominated media coverage for months after the attacks.
But the way people mark the anniversary has in many ways changed from a collective experience that the masses were a part of, to a more personal experience, according to Brian A. Monahan, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Marywood University in Scranton, Penn.
Monahan notes that fifteen-years-later there are two groups of people who experienced the attacks in very different ways --- those who were around and watched the events unfold, and the second group of people who weren’t alive or were too young to remember.
He notes that for the younger generation, 9/11 is akin to how many feel towards Pearl Harbor today, an understanding and acknowledgment, but not a personal connection, unless they were directly affected.
“A lot of people still care deeply about this, but it is more personal…and less public and shared,” he said.
Richard Lachmann, a political sociologist at the University at Albany, says the idea that Americans are more likely to internalize their 9/11 remembrance than show it outwardly speaks to the nature of how American culture and history work.
For the most part, the history of the United States is not built on sentiment of tragedy, according to Lachmann.
“That’s not the image Americans have of their country… it’s a much more positive image of the country being exceptional or the best,” he said. “That self-image doesn’t encourage or make it easy to year-after-year say we are victims, or that we are defined by this tragedy.” But in many ways, it's hard to deny that many have been affected by 9/11, according to Monahan, who wrote the book The Shock of the News: Media Coverage and the Making of 9/11.
He said one of the major takeaways from his research is that 9/11 may have been long ago, but it still deeply matters, because the aftermath of the attacks touched almost every aspect of people’s lives.
“You can trace it to policy, policing and surveillance in New York and elsewhere, the Patriot Act,” he said. “You even see it Trump’s immigration plans and his campaign, where we see themes about crime and terrorism, and the dangerous outsiders. Those themes draw a lot of force from the melodramatic narrative of 9/11.”
According to Google trends, the top states searching 9/11 in the past week, are New York, West Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
Experts say for most Americans not directly impacted through personal loss or proximity, the attacks did not leave permanent scars. And while the day is acknowledged by people across the country, for those in the Northeast, the anniversary is still very raw, says Lachmann.
“It’s very different for people who were directly involved, they certainly don’t forget it,” he said. “But for others, there was this initial moment where people wanted to identify with this and feel that it affected them, but it really hadn’t so that made it harder to sustain.”
While 9/11 won’t fade from the collective memory any time soon, the relevance of the event will fade in time, according to Gary Alan Fine, James Johnson professor of sociology at Northwestern.
“The emotional punch of the day fades,” he said.
He notes that 9/11 will never be just another day, but will likely become as other historical events have, a day that is remembered more fully on anniversary’s that are typically played up, like the 20th, 25th and 50th.
“It won’t have an expiration date like a carton of milk you throw out, but the relevance of the event will fade in time and some of the concerns,” he said.