We are the members of what they call “the 9/11 generation.” The attacks of September 11 will be to our generation, they say, what Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination or any of a dozen other destructive events have been for older generations. This, we’re told, changes everything; our lives will never be the same.
I believe much of that is true. I don’t question that 9/11 radically shifted the course of the formative decade of our lives. Any hope of a post-’90s “peace dividend” was smashed, and the national security state pervades our lives and national priorities. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, headlines hammered President Bush ’63 for pushing through a fiscally irresponsible tax cut and letting unemployment “skyrocket” to 4.9 percent — but Republicans are still electable. Since 9/11, we’ve fallen into several wars and our economy has spiraled downward. Despite President Obama’s calming words delivered from behind bulletproof glass, we live in fear: fear of another attack, fear of losing our jobs, fear of the next crisis.
But when older commentators compare the transformative violence of their era to that of ours, they forget what came afterwards. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, we pulled together and defeated fascism. After JFK’s death, we realized many of the programs he envisioned in the New Frontier; we even walked on the moon. Though institutionalized racism is far from behind us, since the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. we have made enormous progress in the fight to expand civil liberties to Americans of all races. These were events and subsequent struggles that united virtually our entire nation. Past victims of transformative violence proved martyrs. After their deaths, they attained a powerful immortality; their battles and dreams lived on within us, shaping our national ethos and policies.
But what sort of dream did the victims of 9/11 leave? Almost 3,000 Americans were killed that day: Democrats and Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, old and young. They were people living their lives, boarding flights, driving into northern Virginia, taking the PATH to work. Were they fighting for something? What did they die for?
As George Packer ’82 recently wrote in the New Yorker, “no national consensus formed around 9/11. Indeed, the decade since then has destroyed the very possibility of a common narrative.” We lack the words to define how our national character has changed during the 9/11 era.
Granted, the imperative of “fighting terrorism” has faced little resistance. Today, Americans are far from united about how to win that fight. Where is the front? Who are our enemies? And how will we know when we’ve finally won? Less than one percent of Americans have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a far cry from the national mobilization of World War II or the mass activism of the civil rights movement. Even with the giant jump in defense spending, the defense industry and the military combined still employ less than two percent of our population. Americans have protested our wars by the millions and a solid majority disapproves of having invaded Iraq in the first place. Socially, economically and ideologically, the war on terror has divided us.
There has been no agreed-upon strategy for national growth since 9/11. Bush’s speech to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001 had no call to change our lives and notions, but simply to pray for the victims and continue living our lives as usual. There was no call to enlist, to buy war bonds, to judge your fellow citizens by the content of their character, or to ask what you can do for your country. There has been no national rally, no movement for reform and no dream to live up to.
And for lack of a dream, we have lived a nightmare.
Jack Newsham is a sophomore in Morse College.