When Bin Laden was killed there was a story on NPR about college parties celebrating his death. Now we'll have the argument about whether it's ever appropriate to celebrate death another time, but the point is that the commentator was surprised that Bin Laden's death would mean so much to kids. After all, he said, they'd grown up with the war on terror so how much could this mean so much to them? The reporter said she'd asked the college kids that same question and they'd replied it meant more to them because they'd grown up with the war on terror. This was the end - or at least the beginning of the end - of a war that had gone on for over half their life.
All of this brings me around to the thoughts that have been circulating in my head lately, thoughts about what it means to grow up in a time of war, of suspended liberty, and what a return to normalcy really means. To those college kids, if the Patriot Act were reversed tomorrow it might be a cause for celebration but it would be a deviation from the norm, not a return to it. To my parents, on the other hand, it would mean a nominal restoration of American justice.
I, however, like several of you reading this, am caught in the middle. Not all of you, not even most of you. Very few in fact. You see, I was in my freshman year of college - barely into my first month - when 9/11 happened. Most of you are a few years younger or a few years older. You'd been adults for at least a year or were still teenagers. 9/11 was important for everyone, but for those of us born in 1983 it means something significant that I've never heard anyone speak about, not even once.
9/11 coincided with the dividing line between childhood and adulthood. In my case, they were only three months apart. I graduated high school, I turned 18, and now I was an adult ready to participate in this great republic I'd been primed for my entire childhood. I had a fantastic civic education. Say what I will about high school, Cheltenham had the best history teachers I've ever met. The best government teachers. A number of things had been impressed upon me, not the least of which was the concept of civic virtue, nor was I ignorant of the cost of liberty, historic challenges to freedom, or the high costs of maintaining a free society, costs that included blood as often as not.
I turned 18 in June, 2001. Three months later, before even the first election I could participate in, 9/11 happened and America changed. In October the Patriot Act was signed and the country I'd been taught about no longer existed. The rights that I'd come to not just praise but see as defining my country were now suspended. Now one can argue whether that America really existed - I'd argue that the beginning of the end really started with Roosevelt - but that's not the point: we'd been prepared for a future and now it was gone. It wasn't taken by the terrorists: they'd hurt us and threatened to destroy us, so we did it to ourselves first.
My generation was at the front of the line when it happened. Finally guaranteed participation in this society, just as we achieved our full citizenship it was yanked away.
Is it any wonder we're bitter? Is it any wonder we don't trust the government? We don't trust our leaders? We don't engage in civic demonstration or representative democracy? We don't expect anyone can fix the economy? Do you wonder why we don't expect there to be social security? Why we barely turn out for elections? We're too young to be cynical we're told. Bullshit. We're too old not to be and too young to be anything else.
Right now the legislature is in "emergency talks" to raise the debt limit and prevent a government default. The Republicans are cynically and manipulatively trying to pass a plan that will control how the default will spread so that they don't alienate seniors by allowing social security to dry up. The Democrats are doing their best to ignore the fact that the current fiscal situation actually is untenable. Both sides dither over numbers while ignoring two critical parts of the puzzle. One is that the military and military operations account for 40% of the budget, meaning that anyone who is serious about cutting the deficit must cut the military, and getting out of a prolonged guerrilla war is a good start. More important, however, is that America is not a budget.
America is not a budget. We are not a company. We are not a conglomeration, an incorporation, or a charter. America is an idea. America is a piece of paper. That piece of paper is bleeding.
America is not buildings and roads. It is not a miltary and guns. It is not a social security network or medicare plan or schools or cities or mountains or forests or anything else. These are things America has but not what it is. America is an idea, and that idea is freedom. That freedom hasn't existed for ten years.
Are you used to it? Do you think about it? Do you even notice it?
I do. Every damn day.
I can't not notice it.
Think about what it's like when you drive and you see a police car behind you. You're not speeding, you're obeying all traffic laws, but there he is. Perhaps he's not even following you, the officer's not even paying attention to you, but the car's route is coincidental with yours, at least for a stretch. Think of how it makes you nervous, of how much closer you watch the speedometer, how much more carefully you obey lights and traffic signals, how you studiously avoid your phone. I'm worse. When I was in high school and got my driver's license I had a Pennsylvania junior license. It restricted a lot of things for the first eighteen months you were licensed to drive or until you turned eighteen, whichever came first, which meant if you got your license after 16 1/2, you were probably going to get your actual license by aging out, not by passing the year and a half mark. Remember when 9/11 happened? Well just as I was coming off my junior license suddenly cops had a lot more power. I never left that sixteen year-old paranoia that the cops might report me to my parents, it just replaced parents with something else.
That happened with nearly every part of public life for my generation. We traded the supervision of our parents for the supervision of the government. We traded it right when we were supposed to be independent adults. And the worst part is that it was traded for us. Remember, the Patriot Act was passed before that first election we could participate in. We had no say in the officials who passed it, only disappointment in the officials we've elected who've maintained it.
I used to believe in America. Really, truly. I knew that I was naive, that America didn't work the way I'd been taught, but at least I would have a say in this country. At one point I'd even planned on military service and was on a list of three final candidates to attend the United States Naval Academy. I knew America was great, not because she had the best education or infrastructure or the biggest budget or any other metric of prosperity. I knew America was great because the idea of America was great. It was a two-hundred year old experiment in human potential and at last I was going to get to take part.
Then it was ripped away.
I remember being in shock, an almost fugue state, when the pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners were released. I remember horror when our president refused to condemn torture. I remember disappointment when Obama stopped trying to shut down Guantanamo Bay. These were not things America participated in, I knew, but that America didn't exist anymore.
I've only just recently come to realize how significant it was that I was on the bring of that change. It affords a perspective on the path of this country that really can't be matched. I'm hardly a centrist - I'm a proud registered Republican yet I've never voted for one outside of a primary, and wrote in most of my votes to protest gerrymandering in the latest PA election - yet I manage to piss off both the left and the right in the rare situations when I can be persuaded to discuss politics. My political views are almost never politically-related, though they're doubtlessly politically-influenced, because the political institutions are meaningless. I watched them crumble. I watched them fall.
This year will be the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. No doubt it will be solemnly commemorated and the dead honored and mourned, both of which are as they should be. I also have no doubt there will be renewed protests on the Patriot Act, it's renewal, and what I suspect will be a demonstration in poor taste about the death of America intended as a reference to the Patriot Act. Take all of that according to your own belief. I will mourn the dead and I will attend what protests I can, especially if they involve more than a meaningless petition or changing my Facebook status. Yet what I will be mourning for, privately and save for this post, secretly, will be the adulthood lost to my generation. The potential we never tasted, the citizenship in a free country that we were promised as that dream was ripped from us.
We are America, or at least we once were.
We can do better.