A View Of Tomorrow, Etched In A Moment

Suddenly, through the lens of terrorism, mortality and world politics come into sharp focus for a new generation of Americans.

Cover Story

October 07, 2001|By Story by Gary Dorsey

Of the past, they could still recall how their football team crushed Parkville 48-12 in the season opener and how a brilliant blue sky prevailed all morning and how Britney Spears writhed with a python on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Of the immediate future, they could still have faith. At Catonsville High School, auditions for the fall play, Up The Down Staircase, would soon begin. At Montgomery Blair High School, students would again record the most National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists in the state - for the sixth year in a row.

But that Tuesday morning, the anchored past and constant future severed. As a national tragedy collapsed across lesson periods, that natural juncture of time opened a fissure. Hijackers, Muslim chieftains, expert witnesses, teachers who could no longer teach - an unimaginable tsunami of news brought time to a standstill. The divide widened and a few of them began to realize that nothing again would ever fill the chasm.

"In my life, it will always be the time before this happened and the time after," says Stefan Matheke-Fischer, a senior at Blair, a self-described anarchist with a history of radical political involvement. "I just want peace."

"I wanted to get back to my normal, incredibly busy life," says Nora Krohn, a senior at Catonsville who once named music as the "biggest thing" in her productive life. "But then I also wanted to know everything there was to know or would happen in relation to this event because it's changed me forever. Everyone in this country has immediately become a world citizen."

The jolt of terrorism on Sept. 11 captured the attention of these adolescents like nothing else in their lifetimes. Infamously known as members of Generation Y - previously characterized by demographers more for their consumer habits than their ascendance as politically minded citizens - they belong to a group that has come of age during the most optimistic and prosperous time in American history. Twenty-six days ago, when the unthinkable happened, it struck them especially hard. If only for a moment, Generation Y was transformed.

Aghast. Alarmed. Astonished.

Angry. Aggrieved. Aroused.

Generation Y became Generation A - a generation rudely, unquestionably awakened.

"This is the biggest socializing event of the last 25 or 30 years," says James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who recently completed a survey of civic attitudes among more than 3,000 high school students across the state. "Until now this Millennial Generation would have had few experiences to direct their political socialization - the Clinton impeachment, the O.J. Simpson trial, maybe - but nothing like Vietnam or Watergate. Until now it seemed like we were seeing the birth of an apolitical or nonpolitical generation. Now that we face months and months of newscasts and investigations and hearings, this event will awaken these kids to world events and U.S. politics like nothing else in their lifetimes. It will go on and on and on."

Two days after the terrorist attacks, another political scientist, Steven David, a dean of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, addressed a Generation Y crowd of more than 200 at an impromptu campus forum on terrorism.

He told them how an earlier generation was shaped by World War I, became pacifists and supported policies of appeasement that allowed Adolph Hitler to gain momentum. He spoke of how a World War II generation learned to stop dictatorships but also supported interventionist policies that led to the bog of Vietnam. The Vietnam generation became disillusioned and distrusting of politics.

"How will this mold you?" he asked, predicting that it inevitably would.

Then, as if they hadn't considered it yet, he added: "You must realize, Americans of your age will die."

The stunned silence that followed suggested that perhaps another piece of the happy past had detached from the future, reminding them of the unbreachable divide that would likely shape their generation for many, many years to come.

First of all was how it happened.

In 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the day was Sunday. Children gathered around the family radio for news.

Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John Kennedy on a Friday afternoon in 1963. Most children went home and watched second-hand accounts on black-and-white TV sets over the weekend.

But unlike defining moments of the 20th century, last month's terrorist attacks struck like a personal assault, live and in color. The school setting may have been more structured than a family living room, but in some ways it felt far less secure. The week was new, the school day had just begun. No matter how distant students may have been from Manhattan, Washington or rural Pennsylvania, many sat only a few feet away from disaster - as it occurred - in their presence. In the intimacy of classrooms, surrounded by teachers and classmates, a sense of isolation and vulnerability hit some like a thunderbolt.

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