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Our Generation-Defining Moment: 9/11 and Fear

by Nathan Lynch | Colgate University

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: September 11, 2012

If we cannot achieve anything that displaces the terror we felt on 9/11, we resign our generation to live under fear.

headshot nathan lynch Nathan Lynch

It is a tradition for each generation in America to try to nail down its own “defining moment.” This moment represents the circular causality of attitudes and events influencing each other which create an era (philosophers would call this a ‘hermeneutical circle’). We look to illustrate some theme or idea that defines our collective consciousness; we want to distinguish ourselves from our parents and explain what wrinkle we’ve brought to the world.

Certainly, it is true that many still argue about what that moment is for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (Is it Woodstock or the Moon Landing? Were they at their greatest during the fall of the Berlin Wall or the dawn of the Internet age?). Regardless, the debate makes us work toward understanding our place in history.

And frankly, I’m afraid of what we’ve set ourselves up to conclude.

If we were to take stock of the ideas and events that influence us and try to nail down a moment that defines our generation, one is immutable. 9/11 and its ramifications creep into every moment of our young lives. It has defined a stage of the millennial generation’s moral development. But for 9/11 to represent our generation in adulthood is to understand us as a generation overwhelmed by fear. It is a fate we are unwittingly being hurled toward by our leaders, who would arrest our development rather than allow us to exercise our free will.

This is not to say, as some might, that the first moment fear grasped our collective windpipes was when those planes hit the towers. Fear and optimism ebb and flow through American history. The area of upstate New York in which I live has hosted (among the various other cults in the mid 19th century) the infamous Millerites: 100,000 seemingly normal people who sold their possessions, camped in the valleys of New York and awaited the raging inferno that would bring with it the end of the world (this was followed by the very appropriately-named “Great Disappointment”). Time shows that the American economy has had just as many bank runs driven by doubt as bubbles driven by confidence. We have been, and are a self-conscious nation, prone to punctuate our lives with panic attacks.

Despite our historical flings with fear, it would be remiss to say that the way we experience fear hasn’t undergone a renaissance in the past twenty years. Fear often drives our perceptions, most strikingly in the media that consumes our everyday lives. Take, for example, some recent ADT commercials, which position two helpless infants as our main characters and go on to describe the victims of home invasions right next door. Or consider ads from insurance companies like Geico and Allstate, which mask our fear of random acts of destruction with humor (note: humor never discounts the destruction; it just distorts how it is portrayed). Look at the way television news programs have begun to frame their reports: (Tonight at 6: Is your child a victim of the choking game?”). Fear is employed by just about everyone that wants to influence us. This isn’t an accident; fear sells.

9/11 was one of those rare moments where we saw fear unfold before us. The millennial generation — which ranged from young adulthood to early childhood in 2001 — grew up watching terrorist attacks on television. Perpetrated with the sole purpose of spreading fear, 9/11 allowed our national discussions to be dominated by that same fear. Whereas other generations were able to transform these moments of panic into great moments of collaboration and pride, 9/11 has brought us none of that. We’ve tightened security and intensified our suspicions, rather than become collectively motivated and awestruck about what we can achieve.

Uninhibited fear is killing our generation. The fear amplified by those who control the political, economic, religious and environmental conversations in this country has led our young people to either partition these issues off from their lives or become fatalistic about the outcome. If we continue to call Washington unfixable, the economy crippled, our environment ruined and religious bigotry undeniable, we fix these things in the minds of our youth as the eternal burdens of life. For our fear-saturated generation, these issues must either be ignored or accepted as absurdities (the latter is the most worrisome).

The world of politics and those who digest it set the tone for these conversations. In an election year, we can only expect the familiar stern voices and black-and-white frowning faces of paranoid political ads. We need to be led out of our panic rooms.

As the notoriously-depressing novel The Plague rather cheerily puts it: “To state quite simply what we learn in times of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Nathan Lynch Nathan Lynch Nate Lynch grew up in a sleepy town in southern Maine and goes to college in an even sleepier town in upstate New York. He works for the News section in Colgate’s campus newspaper and is a member of the Religion Newswriters Association.

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