Until recently, I was an Organization Kid, at least according to David Brooks. In last April’s Atlantic Monthly, Brooks argued that today’s Ivy Leaguers and tomorrow’s elite were Organization Kids, hard-working automatons with minimal interest in politics and a reverence for authority that would have been laughable in the Vietnam era.
From an early age, we were shown the path to success, coddled by the greatest economy in history. We lived in an insulated civilization, where the Cold War and threats of armageddon were relegated to the history books and where our only memory of war was a lopsided, CNN-edited victory in a distant desert. Still, I clung to the belief that our generation was ready to prove itself worthy if someday, somehow, it was ever tested.
Our test has begun. The Organization Kid, if he or she ever existed, was struck a mortal blow by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The civilization that produced and raised this generation of college students was attacked that day in the most sudden and violent way imaginable, and as a result our outlook on the world will never again be the same. On Sept. 11, we were the victims of an unprecedented crime that put us on the front line of a new war which may last for decades. That day was a defining moment for our generation — we were challenged to defend not just our lives, but our way of life.
With our emotions still raw, it’s too early to tell exactly how our generation will be affected in the long term by the events and aftermath of Sept. 11. Skeptics say that once Osama bin Laden has been disposed of, the rubble has been cleared from lower Manhattan, and the economy comes roaring back, we will revert to our Organization Kid selves, and be forever remembered as a hopelessly insular and self-serving generation.
But too much has changed for us simply to return to our old ways. We now know that hatred toward us exists, that foreign policy is not conducted in a vacuum, and that we are vulnerable to outside attack.
Over the last decade, when we faced no obvious threat of attack, we took our civilization’s values of freedom and liberty for granted. We believed that our mortality was somehow deferred and that evil in the world was a distant myth. We believed the 1990s were normal because we had no reason to believe differently.
Nearly every generation experiences an event that shatters its assumptions. Still, historical analogy does not quite tell us how our generation will be shaped by recent events. As the smoke has cleared from New York and northern Virginia and the front has shifted to Central Asia, I recognize how much the terrorist attacks were unlike Pearl Harbor, when the world had been at war for two years and young men would soon be drafted to fight overseas.
Nor was Sept. 11 for our generation like the Cuban Missile Crisis, which generated fear and panic but no civilian deaths. History will likely regard Sept. 11 more like the 1963 slaying of John F. Kennedy. While it does not make a perfect parallel, it also was a shocking, where-were-you-when event that shattered an American generation’s sheltered ideals.
Sept. 11 demonstrated to us what our elders already knew: that the era through which we passed our adolescence was among the most unusual in history, here or anywhere else. It’s little surprise that in a Time Magazine poll this week, 69 percent of American adults polled believe the terrorist attacks will define a generation the same way that the Kennedy assassination did.
The effect of Kennedy’s assassination on American college students of that era could not be measured simply by the number of young people signing up for the Secret Service, but instead by the way it changed their perspective and influenced today’s parents and policymakers. Likewise, the real test for our generation will come a quarter-century in the future, when the decisions are in our hands.
We will be changed as a generation because we will be forced to think about our world in unconventional ways. In this new world order we are not dealing with traditional states, but with international networks of terrorists. We will have to draw up new rules of diplomacy and engagement. Our professors have been able to show us how we dealt with threats in the past, but it is up to us to determine how those lessons should be applied to a world where all the rules have been broken.
Osama bin Laden has called America weak, frail, and decadent, and on at least some level Sept. 11 was a test of our resolve as a civilization. So far, that resolve has not been lacking. But what will happen to our generation’s resolve and focus in a year or two? Part of me is simply hopeful that members of my generation will not shy away from the challenge and relapse again into insularity.
We were startled by these events, and rightly so — they were worse than anything we had heretofore experienced. I believe, and hope, that our generation’s notoriously pathetic participation in elections now will be improved and that we will maintain our recently-found awareness of world affairs. But if in the long term we as a generation do not stand up to defend and maintain our civilization, then perhaps we do not deserve it.
We had better maintain our interest and resolve, because our generation will someday have to cope with the fallout of recent events. The many long term concerns include the anti-terrorism legislation currently being passed and the political and economic IOUs being doled out to foreign nations for their help in the war against terrorism, which will someday be collected in full. More importantly, we will have to work to ensure that such a horrible thing never happens again. This is a tall order for any generation, but we have been thrust into the situation and we must make the best of it. We are up to the challenge.
We could easily have been a lost generation, notable only in its conformity and short-sightedness, a product of prosperity and decadence. Sept. 11, 2001 changed that. We were once a generation that cried out for definition and historical significance, and now we are getting more than we could have imagined. As we leave for home this Thanksgiving break to be with friends and family of all generations, we should reflect on exactly what that significance is, and how we hope to shape it.
Tim R.A. Cooper is a senior in Pierson College. He is a former news editor of the Yale Daily News.