Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2003 / 14 Elul, 5763
Jane R. Eisner
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. When terror fell from the skies two years ago, the silver lining was supposed to be what came next: A renewed sense of patriotic attachment, a desire to serve and engage in all things American.
Especially for the young. Insular, apathetic young adults (so the stereotype went), with more attachment to MTV than the ballot box, would be transformed into active citizens and future leaders as great as in granddad's time.
Every generation needs a moniker and a defining moment; in one awful morning, Generation 9/11 got both.
So it seemed at first. Within a month after the terrorist attacks, student trust of the federal government and the military had increased substantially. Young people surveyed said they were more likely to engage in political and issue-oriented discussions.
But it didn't last. By May 2002, a survey of college-aged Americans that 71 percent didn't expect to see a long-term continuation in the upsurge of patriotism and national unity. By fall of that year, indicators of political attitude and behavior were sliding back to historic lows. On Election Day, hardly anyone under 21 bothered to vote.
Ganesh Sitaraman and Previn Warren, two intense students who begin their senior year at Harvard this week, sought to make sense of it all, and their slim, new book is a poignant testament to dashed hope and lost opportunity.
"Sept. 11 was not the defining moment for our generation," they argue in "Invisible Citizens: Youth Politics" after September 11.
"We suffered with our country emotionally, but did not participate actively. There was no draft. There were no Liberty Bonds. There was no social mobilization. ... We were not asked to help our country, and we were not compelled to believe that our participation in governmental service might contribute to our society or our security."
A little overblown? Maybe. But there's so much substance in their raw, authentic message that dismissing it only will compound the problem.
Young people are staying away from politics because politics is staying away from them. They see only its worst aspects - they were weaned on Monica Lewinsky, don't forget - and little evidence of how political debate and government action can solve social problems and act for the greater good.
Before the terrorist attacks blew away everything else, the biggest newsmaker was Gary Condit. Post-Sept. 11, the most-watched election was for "American Idol." This is inspiration?
The lack of leadership and purpose in government may help explain a paradox among young people today: Namely, that they are volunteering in record numbers yet voting barely at all. Community service has a direct impact close to home; you can see how the things you do benefit real people or ameliorate real problems. Meanwhile, politics is a slow, messy, indirect process taking place under a gloomy cloud somewhere else.
So communities across the nation benefit from the energy of our young adults - but the body politic does not. This enormous pool of untapped voters - by one estimate, 30 million citizens 18 to 30 didn't vote in 2000 - is ignored by the political process, and responds by returning the favor
Is that what we want as the legacy of Sept. 11?
The political dedication, the national coming-together hoped for after that calamity hasn't happened for young adults. Perhaps the young men and women quoted by Sitaraman and Warren might feel differently if the attacks had been sustained over time, transformed from one day of horror to a continuous way of life.
And hindsight may also help. A decade or two from now, it may be easier for them to see the way Sept. 11 altered America's view of itself and its role in the world.
But the failure of our political system to capitalize on the surge of patriotism and compassion felt by young people after Sept. 11 should weigh heavily on us this anniversary week. In an age of television-on-demand and individualized everything, there are precious few collective experiences left.
All the young people quoted in "Invisible Citizens" remembered where they were and how they felt that fateful day. Beyond that, their sense of joint experience breaks down into so many gigabytes. They remember being urged to shop, to serve, to soldier on, but there is little else they shared.
Sitaraman and Warren have a list of recommendations to draw their peers into the political process: Loan forgiveness for students who commit to government work. More opportunities to enlist in the military for nonmilitary duties. More direct contact with elected officials. More effective civic education.
But their strongest plea is to reform the political culture so that it is more responsive to the needs of their generation. That would, in fact, be a fitting legacy for us all.