A Generation of Fear

It takes a generation of living with something before it changes the way we live.

When the electrical grid was first installed and factories shifted from steam to electrical power, very little changed. The plants were organized the same. The tools and workflows were the same. The training and experience of the laborers was the same.

In time, simple changes led to bigger ones. Machinery was laid out differently. New tools were developed. The knowledge required to run the plants spun off ideas for different machines, capabilities and even industries. Soon the world didn’t just run on electricity. The world was electric.

The internet was no different. For a decade we tried to figure out the best way to do the things we did in the world of atoms in the world of bits. We had mail delivered, filled out forms and  made travel reservations. We paid bills. We applied for things. We ordered things.

Now our collective consciousness lives online; our social lives, our entertainment, our social proofs, our security and financial infrastructures. Our presence is nearly entirely online. The internet is no longer a tool. It’s where we live in ways we could never have imagined at the dawn of the information age.

There’s something about living with something for a generation, that changes the consciousness of a people. The young don’t know any different. Their parents learn to live with it. And the elders learn to fear it.

It’s a pattern.

Today, children born on 9/11 turn 17. The 2018 election cycle will be the last one where the entirety of the electorate drew breath in an America where the Towers hadn’t fallen. A generation has come to age in post 9/11 America.

The young don’t know any different. Their parents learned to live with it. And the elders learned to fear it.

Like any change, at first we simply tried to do the same things we did before, in a different way. We changed the way we traveled. We changed the rules around how we hunted for criminals that might perpetrate attacks. We mobilized our military to keep us safe; to fight them over there, before they could hurt us over here.

We did the things we did before. With less regard for our founding principles, but still the same things. We called it vigilance.

See something say something. For a little while.

The damage was done though. Something had seeped into us, like water into cracks in the pavement, waiting for winter to come to split us open. That something was the notion that we were not safe. And that small things, things we never thought could hurt us like a few determined religious fanatics from a different country could hurt us like we’d never imagined.

We were mighty and built to stand up against any power. But we were helpless against the stateless disease. A disease that could attack from within.

A generation later, America is very different. What started as a more vigilant America is now one rotted from within by fear. Our social trust has eroded. Our political factions speak of each other the way one unified American voice once spoke of foreign enemies. Our police force is militarized. Our soldiers are worshipped. Our religion is a wedge to be driven between us. And our great American diversity, once viewed as a strength, is now openly spoken of as a problem to solve.

It takes time to change a culture. It took time for 9/11 to change us into what we are now, a shadow of a once strong nation; an imperfect people, leading the world to peace and prosperity. A nation of ideas, striving to be more inclusive, more diverse…more perfect.

We weren’t perfect. But we were moving slowly towards it. And we weren’t so damn scared.

It will take time to change it back. A generation, perhaps. But we have no choice. America has no choice. The path back to where we were can’t be found by traveling further down the path we’re on. That path is well worn through the centuries of wars and persecution in the name of nationalism, ethnocentricity and economic isolation.

There will always be those who seek power through fear. Chaos, after all, is a ladder. Eventually though, it becomes clear that the safety they promise is an illusion. It’s a swamp to wade into, not to drain.

It’s 56 days until election day. Perhaps it’s time we head back home.


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