The Dissenters

Six months after the terrorist attacks, two young Americans see the new world with critical eyes.

March 11, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Second in an occasional series The afternoon sun breaks into a frosty glare across the picture window of Stefan Matheke-Fischer's high-rise apartment in Silver Spring. The 18-year-old is building a computer on a plain wooden table. He has stationed an electric guitar on the floor nearby and keeps a few good books around the room to feed his spirit.

Over the last six months, Stefan has joined war protests in New York and Washington, survived his first stint in jail and become more intimately acquainted with surveillance tactics of the FBI. He seems surprisingly happy. A senior at Montgomery Blair High School, Stefan's life has been changed by the events of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism - in an odd way, maybe for the better.

"Being an anarchist has probably never been so hard," he says with an easy laugh. "But the reasons have never been so clear."

At a coffee shop off the Johns Hopkins University campus, freshman Maha Jafri, 18, considers comments she has overheard during the past six months from campus discourse about the war:

"I think we should just go bomb the [heck] out of some Muslim country right now."

"If you're protesting war after Sept. 11, you have no decency."

"Could you tell us where you got your un-American, unpatriotic point of view?"

A Muslim of Pakistani descent, Maha also manages to laugh. She sees the absurdity of living on an elite campus where intellectual verve is respected, but debate about American foreign policy languishes. While other students have little to say about ethnic profiling, civilian casualties in Afghanistan or the long-term goals of a loosely defined war, Maha attends peace vigils, joins educational forums and circulates in Baltimore's anti-war community. Twice, she says, she has been stopped at an airport to be searched because she looks like a foreigner although she is 100 percent American, born and reared in Troy, N.Y.

Privately, she speaks out against the war with passion and certitude. But giving voice to dissent in a more public way at the university has not been easy.

"You have to be very careful about what you say and around whom you say it," she admits. "It's such a touchy subject with people. I have this paranoid idea that something I say will come back and be used against me."

The great American civics lesson that began shortly after Sept. 11 with blood drives, flag-waving and teach-ins inspired many young Americans who had never before experienced patriotic yearnings or seen examples of compassion and individual acts of heroism on such a broad scale. But for others - members of a generation just coming into political awareness - intolerance of dissent has been an unexpected outcome of a new style of foreign policy that they believe requires greater oversight and uninhibited debate.

In September, The Sun told stories of 10 teen-agers responding to terrorist events in New York and Washington. As the youngsters sought to grasp political realities that had rarely been so vivid in their lives, the idea that the world would never be the same seemed undeniable. Six months later, life has returned to its former shape and regained its luster for most of them. But for at least these two -- Stefan and Maha - the war on terrorism remains an alarming course of action, and the return to normalcy itself keeps demanding from them a critical response.

He had his hair in dreadlocks then. Stefan would say the terrorist attacks only strengthened his commitment to anarchism. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence in Washington, a September rally against the World Bank, would still go off, and he would march.

But privately, Stefan was shaken. At school, he shared his doubts with a teacher. Protest tactics he once might have supported no longer seemed justifiable. He thought more about non-violence, considered going to church, even felt for an instant that Americans should strike back.

"I was in total fear," he recalled, days after planes flew into buildings in New York and Washington. "When it happened, I even thought retaliation might be OK in this case, until I had a chance to stop and think that this is not just good vs. evil. I've had to work that out."

His father noted the young man's introspection and felt a twinge of pride. Stefan's teacher was intrigued. Their garrulous young anarchist showed signs of change.

Six months later, the vibrant anti-war movement Stefan had anticipated never came to life. The rhetoric of good and evil, which he had to sort out in his own mind, solidified as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. And people his age whom he hoped would be shaken out of their apathy have returned to previous routines.

The idea that Sept. 11 will be a defining moment for his generation, he says, seems less and less likely.

"I think I would have believed it more a couple of months ago," he says, "but the power of video games and Britney Spears and pop culture is a force more powerful than we could ever believe. People have retreated back to their living rooms."

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