Twentysomethings Grapple with Post-9/11 World

Columbia Free Times | October 8, 2004
As the generation of twentysomethings entered the new millennium, many of us could look back on a pretty breezy existence. Our youth granted us the luxury of not knowing much about the Cold War outside of what we’d seen in movies and **G.I. Joe** cartoons. The Iran-Contra affair sounded more like a Nintendo game than a political scandal. And our connection with the Gulf War didn’t stretch far beyond Dana Carvey’s impersonation of the first President George Bush on **Saturday Night Live**. Bill Clinton was the first president we really paid attention to or could identify with, and he had the charisma and attitude of a rock ‘n’ roll star — right down to his taste in women and his insatiable urges.

Our carefree lives came to a screeching halt on the morning of September 11, 2001, when two planes brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a third struck the Pentagon and a fourth crash-landed in a field in Pennsylvania — later suspected to be on its way to a second target in the Washington, D.C. area, presumably the White House. The images streaming from the streets of downtown Manhattan were impossible — they looked more like what we’d seen Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw reporting on from the war-torn streets of some obscure nation. But this was America. This was our home. And suddenly, our generation was thrust into a new realm of consciousness where things like fear, panic, paranoia and anxiety would become all too familiar. Ready or not, we were now living in an age where a miniscule faction of terrorists had brought the once impenetrable America to its knees.

How we deal with that event and its aftermath is crucial in determining our role as a generation in the years ahead. As the Nov. 2 presidential election approaches, we face a defining moment — an election that is in many ways a referendum on how we interpret 9/11. At stake is not only the outcome of the race, but also the level of our involvement. As the call of history beckons, it remains to be seen whether a generation that typically votes in very low numbers will even bother to show up.

++Ground Zero++

Peter Johnson, 25, had just started working a publishing job in Manhattan and was at work on Sept. 11 when the attacks leveled the south end of the island. “The first reports I heard were that a small plane had accidentally flown into one of the towers,” he says. “When it became apparent that it **wasn’t** an accident, a sort of ‘this can’t be happening’ feeling started to set in.”

“I remember being really scared and angry and just completely exasperated with the situation,” says Johnson, who wrote an account of that day for **Free Times** (“Outside is America,” Sept. 19, 2001). He tried to get as close to the site as possible but was turned away by New York Police Department barricades. Not knowing what else to do, Johnson, who admits he isn’t too religious, walked into a church and began praying. Three years later, he still calls Sept. 11 “the most surreal day of my life.”

Twenty-four-year-old Aaron Polkey was attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., at the time of the attacks. “From campus, I could see the Pentagon on fire,” Polkey says. “The entire city was shut down. It was impossible to make any phone calls to anyone on your cell phone or land line — all the phone lines were jammed. It was just a very scary day: Fighter jets were in the sky; nobody knew where the president was; news reports were suggesting that [the] flight that later crashed in Pennsylvania was on its way for another crash in D.C. So, it was really scary.”

Twenty-year-old USC student Chasity Grooms, whose parents are civilian employees at Fort Jackson, was a high school senior at the time. “When I first found out, they didn’t know how many planes were still missing,” she says. “Nobody knew what the next target was.”

Army Sergeant Jonathan Jackson, 24, was in the middle of a training event in Grafenwoehr, Germany, when the news reached his platoon. “The news of a possible reason for deployment of soldiers strikes no one the way it strikes a soldier who is already out training,” Jackson says. “Traditionally, these soldiers are likely to be called up, as they are already busy at training for combat.” His platoon was immediately deployed into a disposition called “force protection,” a pre-planned series of security and anti-terrorism measures.

“Sitting in guard towers and watching over military installations during those first several days, it was difficult to wonder what was out there,” Jackson says. “What was coming next? Were the attacks a singular event, or were they just the start? Would they continue to strike in civilian settings, or would they look to damage our military infrastructure? If the latter became true, how would we — a traditionally trained military — know what to look for?”

Prior to that day, Jackson had figured he’d be serving mostly in low-intensity peacekeeping operations. “The operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed that expectation completely,” he says.

Army Specialist Ron C. Huff, 22, was only in his third week of training when the attacks occurred. “It seemed surreal,” he says. When he’d enlisted, he thought the peaceful outlook at the time would endure and that he’d serve while attending school at night. “It took about an hour, but it became hauntingly clear that an uneventful stint in the Army was not going to be a part of my instantly new reality.”

Marcus Rozbitsky, 29, was living in San Francisco at the time of the attacks. “I was in the shower when my roommate told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center,” he says. Like most people, he says, he didn’t immediately think it was a terrorist attack. When he found out about the second plane, he says, “I knew something was wrong, so I started watching TV. It was shock. I couldn’t believe it. It was unfathomable. The bubble had burst.”

++Come Together++

In the days that followed, Manhattan remained buried beneath a smoky cloud that billowed from the south end of the island. Elsewhere, and internationally, there was a tremendous outpouring of emotion. Robert Heckel, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, describes it as a “universal response.”

Regardless of age, Heckel says, the “initial response was shock, horror and a pulling together. Even very, very diverse groups — the extreme right, the extreme left, centrists — all had this feeling, this nationalistic feel which does occur when people feel vulnerable.”

Heckel likens the response to an American visiting Europe who runs into a fellow American. Even if the two are of different backgrounds, there is a sigh of relief, he says, and a feeling of comfort. “The same thing happens in a crisis, a tragedy. There’s a pulling together of diverse interests, beliefs, ideas … It relates to vulnerability, and it heightens that nationalistic feeling.”

Brent Simpson, a USC sociologist, was a professor at Texas A&M during the attacks. He calls Texas A&M a “really conservative school, and a lot of students there defined themselves, in many ways, in opposition to what we think of when we think of New York City. And, no kidding, a day or two after the World Trade Center attack up until the time I left Texas A&M, I saw countless ‘I Love New York’ T-shirts, ‘I Love New York’ baseball caps and so on.”

Simpson says the reason is that group boundaries got re-defined. “The way Texas A&M students were thinking about themselves vis-à-vis New York City people was that they were defining themselves in many ways in opposition to them: politically, culturally and so on. But when 9/11 happened, boom, the boundaries were shifted to [the] U.S. and U.S. residents against terrorists and [the] U.S. against this big, external threat. There was a very strong, in-group sort of solidarity response as a result of these very clear boundaries that got shifted and clarified and re-defined. I think we still see that,” he says.

“There was definitely a strong sense of unity that we’ll probably never experience again,” says 21-year-old USC student Randy Dargan.

++Channeling a Nation’s Trauma++

At the helm during this unstable time, President George W. Bush and his administration were charged with the daunting task of consoling a traumatized nation that was grieving, calming a stunned nation that wanted an explanation and outlining retaliatory measures for an injured nation that sought justice. As Americans slowly searched for a handle on the situation, Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed.

The Bush administration had two major initial responses to the Sept. 11 attacks. One was the war in Afghanistan; the other was the USA Patriot Act. With an air campaign and the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, America launched its first direct response to the Sept. 11 attacks, aimed at overthrowing the Taliban and destroying Al-Qaeda. It was the beginning of the war on terror.

“It was good to see that our nation’s anguish and anger finally had a target,” Sgt. Jackson says.

“All the evidence we had was it was Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda and that we needed to go in there and get them,” says Rozbitsky, the 29-year-old who was in San Francisco on 9/11. “Because, obviously, the Taliban weren’t going to hand them over.”

“We went into Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban in a direct response to their support for Al-Qaeda’s mission against us, and that made sense to me,” says Polkey, who now studies law at USC.

“[Bush] did exactly what we needed at that point in time,” says Grooms, a political science student at USC. “We went in and, like he said, he was going to hunt down the terrorists, and it didn’t matter where they were living, and he was also going to hunt down those who harbored them, and I just thought that type of leadership was exactly what we needed at the time.”

Other responses to the Sept. 11 attacks, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the 9/11 Commission in November 2002, came more slowly, and only after political pressure built on the administration to act. Still, there was a fairly high degree of consensus behind those moves as necessary responses to 9/11.

“Establishing the Department of Homeland Security was a necessary step to organize ourselves a little better,” says Johnson, the 25-year-old who was in Manhattan during the attacks. USC student Dargan says Bush showed “real outstanding leadership and sound judgment” in his response to 9/11, and Grooms echoes Dargan’s sentiment, saying Bush’s initiatives “showed great leadership.”

++Two Roads Diverged++

Beneath these seemingly unified patriotic responses, however, rifts had already emerged. Civil libertarians on both the left and the right had complained from the start about the provisions of the Patriot Act, and partisan battle lines had been drawn in the debates over the Department of Homeland Security and the 9/11 Commission. But the most fundamental divisions emerged gradually after the summer of 2002, when the Bush administration started dropping hints of its intentions in Iraq. The post-9/11 consensus broke down over the idea that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the next logical step in the war on terror, and where there once was a general air of agreement, there is now bitter partisanship.

“It came out of nowhere,” Polkey says of the invasion of Iraq. “Iraq, for the most part, I understood for being under bad leadership,” says the president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina, “but I heard the president say repeatedly that, or imply, that Sept. 11 happened, we attacked the Taliban, and now it’s time to attack Saddam — the root still being Sept. 11. But [there was] no evidence out there that Saddam had anything to do Sept. 11.”

“I was still on the fence about Iraq, because we were getting information from the government saying that they still had weapons of mass destruction, but I was very skeptical,” says Rozbitksy, who is organizing a grassroots effort to elect John Kerry and John Edwards. He says he still wonders if Bush really thought Al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq or if Bush was instead motivated by the opportunity for his friends to profit. “If we would do certain things like raise the fuel economy in vehicles and do other things to increase our independent fuel efficiency, then I would be more apt to believe that he was there to free Iraq,” Rozbitksy says. “But he hasn’t really done those things.”

“I think we’re there for oil, plain and simple,” says Johnson, who considers himself a left-leaning independent who has only leaned more toward the left since the events following Sept. 11. “If not, then why aren’t we in Sudan preventing the genocide that’s going on there right now? Saddam was a bad person and a ruthless dictator, that much is true, but how in the world are things considered better there right now? It’s going to be a black hole of instability for the next 20 years.”

While the widespread bipartisan support for Bush has lessened over the issue of Iraq, those who share his view remain as committed to his leadership as in the first weeks and months after 9/11.

“It is certainly a reaction to and a component of the war on terror,” Jackson says of the war in Iraq. “If our administration felt that our national security was threatened enough to conduct this campaign in the wake of Sept. 11, then I think we couldn’t have one without the other.”

“As far as terror goes, Saddam took the cake,” says Huff, who expects to be deployed to Afghanistan later this year.

“It is probably one of the most important wars in history,” says Grooms, a vice chair of the USC Young Republicans. “It’s a different kind of war, and President Bush even talked about this. It’s not one where we’re going to sit around a big table and sign a peace treaty. It’s one that you win with small battles. When you find a cell of terrorists in Afghanistan, when you get rid of Saddam in Iraq, these are victories in the war on terror.”

“There’s no argument that we need to bring our troops home,” says Dargan, president of the USC Young Republicans, “but we need to stick with the plan. Bush wants to bring them home, obviously, but we’ve got to finish our work first. There’d be no telling what Kerry would do. He doesn’t have the leadership it takes. It’s so incredible watching his speeches; all he does is talk about how bad everything is. We need a positive leader and some optimism in today’s world with all that’s going bad already. We don’t need somebody telling us everything’s all wrong without offering any solutions.”

“I think what a lot of people have been saying was, ‘Well, we thought we had a solution and a quick one,’” psychologist Heckel says. “But reality turns out to be something different. So, if we have a trauma and feel vulnerable, and a solution is provided and a solution doesn’t work, what do we do now? Punting from our own end zone isn’t a lot of fun.”

Sociologist Simpson says there are a number of reasons for the breakdown of consensus, and one of them is a renewed sense that a patriot can also be someone who asks questions. “There’s two big groups now defining what the patriotic thing to do is in very different ways now, and in a way, now you can protest against Bush without giving the impression that ‘I don’t care about what happened on 9/11.’”

++Branding 9/11?++

It’s the other end of the spectrum — where 9/11 becomes a reference point for everything — that has people like Polkey incensed. Polkey is disappointed because he thinks Sept. 11 has been abused for political purposes and believes that abuse has perpetuated an everlasting state of fear. “Considering how horrible of a day that was, I hated that, in watching the Republican Convention, that I personally got tired of hearing about it. I hated that feeling, but the reason why I felt that way was because every single speaker at the Republican Convention mentioned the morning of Sept. 11. Now, of course that was a defining moment in the Bush presidency, and, presumably, they are proud of Bush’s reaction to it … I think an oblique reference to the president’s record on Sept. 11 is appropriate, but I think Republicans at that convention took it too far.”

Simpson says that the Republicans’ efforts to identify the party with the country’s feelings on Sept. 11 “could actually turn the election in Bush’s favor.” He says social psychologists have begun addressing how Sept. 11 will impact people’s preferences in the presidential elections. “It’s based on some stuff called terror-management theory. Basically, the idea here is that humans are just like any animals in the sense that we’ve got this survival instinct, but we were cursed with this horrible consciousness or the ability to contemplate our own fate, and we know we’re going to die, right? And one thing that this sense of our own mortality does is it makes us uneasy, and one way we deal with this uneasiness is we tend to latch on to charismatic leaders, and the reason is that we sense that they’re attached to sort of a dominant cultural world view. And what this does is it gives us a sense of, by attaching ourselves to culture and symbols of America and freedom and all of this, it gives us a sense that we’re immortal.”

Simpson says researchers have conducted mock elections at liberal colleges throughout the country where they’ve asked one of two groups to recount Sept. 11. When the votes are tallied, Simpson says the group of students who were asked to recall Sept. 11 preferred Bush over Kerry. “This is why terror-management theorists are focusing on this, especially given the recent allegations during the Republican National Convention. There were accusations that they were using that to their benefit.”

Conservatives, on the other hand, might argue that people **need** to be reminded of what happened on that day, suggesting people have become complacent again. “The further we get from Sept. 11, the more I see us going back to the same attitudes and problems we had,” Grooms says. “We all have bumper stickers on our cars — you see them all around town — ‘We’ll never forget,’ but I think a lot of people have, and they’ve forgotten why we are fighting this war on terror and what caused it.”

“All of us thought this could never happen, but it did, and every time you see that picture of the planes, you think about how it can happen again,” Dargan says.

++You’re Gonna Carry that Weight a Long Time++

In a recent symposium at USC, **Boston Globe** columnist James Carroll said this polarization stems from differing perceptions of the truth. He said some people believe they have the truth and are willing to protect it at all costs, while others are in search for the truth and will never stop seeking it. Bush supporters, he said, are the ones who say they’ve got the truth, while Kerry supporters say they are seeking it.

No matter who thinks they have the truth and who is in search of it, the fact is that Sept. 11 changed this country and its perception of the world around it. With presidential elections less than a month away, it’s clear that the next president will be obligated by the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq, related or not, and that our generation stands to face the consequences of both for years to come.

“This war isn’t going anywhere,” Polkey says. “Our commitment in Iraq isn’t going anywhere. Regardless of who gets elected president, we’re going to have a responsibility in that area. The burdens on the military aren’t going anywhere, and if our country goes to war with another nation — Syria, Iran, North Korea — for whatever reason, and military troops are needed, the possibility of a draft is something that young people should pay attention to. We’re pretty deep into it now, and I don’t see any easy way out that won’t heavily involve our generation.”

“I’m glad it’s like that, to a certain degree,” Dargan says. “It encourages people to vote.”

“I don’t really believe in destiny or fate,” Rozbitsky says, “but if you look back in history, there are always these moments that awaken movements, and some are stronger than others.” While he doesn’t think our generation must bear this burden alone, he does agree that we’re going to have to share the load, perhaps for the first time.

“The immersion some of us are getting in this war will certainly aid us down the road when we are the ones in the upper echelons of power,” Jackson says. “What generation in its right mind would turn its back on the historic opportunities we will continue to have in the coming decades to bring lasting changes to our world?”

Jackson says the events of and following Sept. 11 have thrust twentysomethings’ consciousness onto the world stage and caused us to pay attention to events in places we had never heard of.

“September 11 was a tragic day in American history,” Grooms says, “and it showed that we weren’t invincible, and it really made me realize that there is evil in this world. I don’t think before Sept. 11 happened that I really thought about terrorism or the fact that we were going to be attacked. I got up that day and went to school just like any other day.”

“There’s a lot of things to look at,” Dargan says. “You know, why are these people so mad at us? Is there anything we can do to help curb some of their emotions?”

“I hope that we are creating an environment of tolerance and understanding and respect to the fact that there’s a big world out there,” Polkey says. “It’s not ‘us or them.’ This whole ‘you’re either with us or against us,’ I hope we move away from that, because it seems to me that the reason why they hate us is so much more than ‘us vs. them,’ ‘they hate our freedom.’ The reason why they hate us is a very complicated concept intertwined with religion, culture and morals and values, and I think that growing up in a post-9/11 world, I hope that young people take the time to actually study the reason why they hate us and work toward creating a much more unified approach to dealing with it.”

As we move further and further away from Sept. 11, the hope is that the lives lost on that day are not squandered, and that our generation will help make sense of it all as we continue to mature and become active participants in the world surrounding us.

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