Our nation's reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, produced many regrettable things, including the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and a sense of fear that was ingrained in many of us - especially children, as a panel of current Lake Placid High Schoolers told us last week.
Those students were 6 and 7 years old on the day of the attacks. They were too young to put them in perspective but old enough to fall under the sway of - to use the most precise word - terror. They thought a war was coming to take their parents and siblings away. In school for years afterward, they were made to rehearse vague attack drills, in which they'd hide under their desks (as if that would protect them) on the ridiculously distant chance that Lake Placid would be a future al-Qaida target. To this day, when they enter a new place - from a subway to a restaurant - they said they make sure they know where the exits are and think what they would do if a bomb went off.
These students said it's reasonable to call theirs a "Fearful Generation."
But talking to these articulate young people revealed for us some of the great things that came out the U.S. reaction to the attacks: preparedness, bravery, education about the Middle East and a human understanding that crosses national as well as party boundaries. Those qualities, even if they didn't make enough of us adults stronger and better, were ingrained into the impressionable children of that time, along with the aforementioned fear, and may well be more widespread in years to come.
9/11 made many people stop taking their country for granted, at least for a while, and face up to the fact that, like it or not, we're all Americans. Remember how the whole country came together, regardless of politics and generations? It made us realize that there will always be those who oppose what we are, and who will be willing to lash out against it, but it also showed us that we had a world full of allies who publicly supported us that day. Remember that? We must have done something right to deserve that.
Those attacks also made us look at our nation's missteps and faults to see if our foreign policy and cultural attitude had egged on our enemies. Such self-examination is strong and noble rather than weak. Many - perhaps most - Americans didn't know the U.S. had a serious enemy in al-Qaida before that day, and we wanted to learn more about them: where they were coming from, what their beef was with us and if any of those grievances were justified. We would not give in to terrorists' demands, but the urge to correct our failings and rise above the terrorists morally was a good one. We wanted to be fair and seek justice, even though we were the victims. If we had gone further down that path, the world might have had a new model to emulate.
But the "War on Terror" wasn't always just, and we weren't always wise in the use of our nation's power - which wasn't as substantial as our leaders thought, as shown by the messes of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A few of our forces, perhaps through a desire to make them feel stronger than they were, treated people shamefully. War prisoners were denied the Geneva Convention standards we would expect for our soldiers kept in foreign jails; the prisoner abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib were perhaps the low point.
But in our trials and our errors, most of our forces upheld ideals of justice, respect and assistance to nations groaning under the weight of oppressive regimes. Also, in the process, Americans have learned much about Islamic culture. Our reporter Nathan Brown said his high school world history course covered the Middle East in a day. The LPHS students we interviewed said almost half of their world history class was spent on that huge and important part of humanity.
This new generation is also coming of age at a time when, with 9 percent unemployment nationwide, they can't expect to get jobs easily or make as much money as their predecessors. But they've been preparing for the worst for 10 years, and they may be mentally tougher than any generation since the one that grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. Tom Brokaw famously called that "The Greatest Generation." This one could give them a run at that title. Talking with these kids gives us hope.