Each generation has an event so central to its consciousness that its collective memory uses the moment as a prism through which to transition from emotional adolescence to adulthood. These events – almost exclusively stemming from a profound national tragedy – awaken a generation to something greater than their own self-interest. They serve as the inspiration for a generation’s leaders. Pearl Harbor called the Greatest Generation to service; President Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War served as pivots for our parents’ generation. For our own generation, there is no doubt such a moment materialized on September 11, 2001.
Growing up in the 1990s, our generation knew revolutionary advancements in technology, expanding personal opportunities, genuine potential for peace in the Middle East and an unparalleled period of economic prosperity in American history. Few in America thought desperation in the developing world would spawn religious extremists who would strike our heartland. September 11 shattered this false sense of security. It showed the power of hate. More importantly, September 11 showed the power of pure human compassion and goodness.
Like most people, I can intimately remember every detail of that day. I remember where I was when I heard of the first plane striking the World Trade Center, to watching the towers fall on TV, to watching my friends cry not knowing whether their parents made it out of the towers alive, to seeing the smoke on the horizon driving home, to going to sleep not knowing if I would wake up in the morning. Yet out of this unthinkable tragedy, I noticed something different when walking through the hallways at school that day and those after. Everyone seemed genuinely concerned about one another. The camaraderie was infectious; people put aside long standing quarrels and starting talking for the first time in years. It was not uncommon to see two people sharing a cry in the hallway or embracing one another for comfort. This raw goodness still brings tears to my eyes.
September 11 helped put my life in focus. It was the first time I stopped to consider the broader purpose of my life. It was the first time I was drawn to ponder something greater than my own self-interest. I saw a nation divided by the petty squabbles of the 1990s transform into an entity unified country behind a single purpose and a single ideal. Even as a committed Democrat, I felt incredible pride when President Bush addressed the nation that evening and in the leadership he showed in the direct aftermath of the attack. Unfortunately, this pride quickly evaporated.
President Bush could have used this national unity to heal lingering wounds from his contentious election victory; but he didn’t. He could have used this profound tragedy to unite the world around the central purpose of providing opportunities for the poor and eradicating both the ideology of terrorism and its physical manifestations; but he didn’t. He could have funded genuine research into viable alternative energy sources to eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, or fossil fuels in general; but he didn’t. He could have vigorously pursued the reconstruction of Afghanistan and provided its people increased prosperity and hope for the future; but he didn’t. He could have used our unique values to return the United States to a place of reverence in the hearts of people all around the world; but he didn’t. Instead, he drove a wedge between America and the world by pursuing policies based on a divisive ideology emphasizing our differences rather than our common goals and purpose.
Three years later, it is difficult to quantify the impact September 11 made on my life. Undeniably, it gave me an unquenchable desire to serve my country. It gave me a greater appreciation for the human experience both in the United States and abroad. It exposed me to incomparable grief and incomparable kindness. It showed me one piece of what makes our country so great. Most importantly, its aftermath provided me with an ideal: to spend my life working toward a time when – absent a national tragedy – our nation can once again be united in such a solemn way. If I succeed even modestly in this quest, I will know my life to have been a success.
-The writer, a junior majoring in international affairs, is Hatchet opinions editor.