On September 11, 2001, our nation – and much of the world – watched – in shock, with emotions raw – as two towers, two massive feats of engineering, symbols of the triumph of capitalism and technology, of greed and power, of America and freedom, stood with gaping holes burning on a crisp, clear September morning. Then the towers fell.
In that moment, we Americans were united and much of the world with us. “We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers!” Le Monde declared. Vigils were held in Tehran for the victims. Around the world, there was outrage and sadness over the events. We were a long way from freedom fries and Ahmadinejad.
Three generations of Americans stood before their televisions sets and on the streets of New York City and Washington D.C. and watched these events unfold: the Greatest Generation which had endured the Great Depression, fought a cataclysmic world war, and set America on a path to isolate the Soviet Union and win the cold war; the Baby Boomers split into two camps: those liberals who had seen the corruptions and hypocrisies of their parents’ world and marched in support of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and against the Vietnam war and American imperialism; and those conservatives who decried their parents’ tepid stand against Communism, wanting this totalitarian ideology declared the evil that it was, who wanted to fight Communism wherever it was and destroy it, and who at the same time, wanted to preserve traditional values at home, to ward off the rapid changes the Baby Boomer liberals and the Greatest Generation had put into motion; and then there was us, a generation without an identity, who had not yet been shaped by great movements or moments in history, and who saw the two towers burning fall. On 9/11 we were all one people.
On 9/12 we began to put each of our selves back together.
Those in the Greatest Generation, elderly, stood aside, offering advice, waiting to be called upon for service and sacrifice, looking at FDR’s marshaling of America’s resources after Pearl Harbor as a model.
Our generation, uncertain, waited for guidance.
Those in power, Republicans and Democrats of the Baby Boom Generation, panicked. Congress passed bills expanding government power without reading or understanding them; the directive went down from the President: the gloves are off: we must use any means necessary to stop another attack; the media, sensing the mood of the country, placed American flags on every broadcast and avoided asking tough questions.
But as the dust settled, old divisions began to reassert themselves. Perhaps the most pivotal figure in the domestic fallout that followed was Karl Rove. Rove had been trying to find a defining moment which he could use to create a new political consensus, to create a transformation in the electorate. He saw that 9/11 would be a transformational event, and that it could be the defining event of the early 21st century.
So he decided to harness this anti-American attack and to use it to isolate those views he saw as threats – the views of the liberal Baby Boomers. He believed history had provided him with the lever to move the electorate and the country into his ideological camp. Rove thought he could use 9/11 to initiate a shift in the electorate and consolidate his party’s hold on power. Gradually, his strategy backfired, and America became more polarized than ever, split roughly along the same lines as they had split in the 1960s. The Baby Boomers, united on September 11, 2001 had become polarized again by September 11, 2002.
Here is where we leave history leaves us today – with out parents’ generation hopelessly polarized, bringing to this pivotal moment in history their various prejudices and suspicions; somehow, the challenges we face from islamist radicals, from global climate change, from a failing health care system, from the demands of globalization have become subordinated to a culture war in which there can be no winner. Like a bickering couple, this generation has polarized around every issue and made each issue serve a purpose in their larger and more petty generational conflict.
The Post 9/11 Generation
My generation – those who have graduated high school between 1997 and the the present, the post 9/11 generation – has been shaped almost entirely by the post-Cold War administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. We have watched and sometimes participated in this war of our parents, but have never been entirely invested in it. Instead, we volunteered locally, we created communities over the web, we started businesses, we marched against war on our campuses – we made a difference in each of our local communities, but made no impact on our nation’s course.
We can see the enormity of the problems facing us, and we realize the pettiness of so many of the issues that take up the media’s attention. While our society waste reams of paper debating whether to accept gay marriage, evolution, or presidential trysts, the issues of civil liberties, terrorism, environmental issues, health care, education, and free speech (including net neutrality), are largely ignored. After 9/11, my generation realized that we would soon be inheriting this world with all of it’s burdens and responsibilities, and today, six years on, we see a fucked up world falling apart and we are divorced from the levers of power, unable to alter the unfortunate trajectory of our history.
We, the post 9/11 generation, are a cynical generation. But we hold out for the promise of hope.
This is why we must show up at the polls and caucuses this winter to determine which candidates we will have to choose from. We must not let this election pass us by. This next election is our chance, our opportunity to make our voices heard. And we cannot let another four or eight years pass with more of the same petty culture wars overshadowing the real and pressing issues we face. Our parents may not have to deal with these issues, but we will.
2008 must be the year we lay our claim to the leadership of our country. We may yet have another chance before these issues are hard upon us; or this may be our last chance to prepare for coming storm.
footnote: I want to make clear that I do not wish to equate the behavior of liberal and conservative Baby Boomers, especially in recent times. I believe that the conservative Baby Boomers have, since at least the late 1990s, tried far harder to polarize the nation and distract us from the pressing problems that our country faces because they believed doing so aided them in winning elections. But, especially over the course of the past 50 years, I believe both sides have done their parts and that in the end, regardless of blame, no political figure rooted in the Baby Boom generation can bring the country together.