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.


Why We Served

A few weeks ago, a reader posted a question in the comments section of an essay I wrote on the topic of Confederate monuments. I’ve said just about all that I think I should on that subject. If you’re interested in my perspective, you can find it here. I’m not interested in old statues today. Today I’m only interested in the question. Continue reading

More Perfect

Just about all that can-or should- be said or written about 9/11 has been said or written about 9/11. It’s starting to dull in our minds, whether we admit it or not. The further we get from it, the less we grieve. The trauma becomes less acute and transitions mercifully into an annual reminder. There’s still plenty of emotion. It’s not as raw, but it’s still there. In time, that will wane too.

The smoke has cleared. The culprits are dead. The buildings have been rebuilt. It’s not history yet, because the end of it hasn’t played out-somehow, 15 years later it hasn’t played out. But it’s not current events either. It’s not still happening-it’s just not over yet if that makes sense. We’re starting to get to that point where we understand that we’ve done a lot of things wrong since- like forget the lesson that when you use armies to fight ideas, you usually just end up punching yourself out. We weren’t quite Foreman on the mat in Zaire-arms sprawled over our heads, but we were close. And it’s not over. We may get there yet, but that’s another commentary for another time. Today, is about memorial.

We all remember where we when it happened. I was 8,000 miles away from home on my first deployment as a naval officer, much closer in proximity to those who planned and celebrated the attacks then my loved ones who experienced them back home. In the brief time I had before I would lose contact with the outside world, I remember sending an email to my mother, letting her know that I was ok. I gave her a half- hearted message of encouragement that this too would pass, and in time, things would be back to normal.

I was wrong. Things never were and never will be normal.

We’ve got a few generations before people who didn’t live through it start to assign meaning to 9/11. They’ll try to contextualize it-if one can contextualize airplanes flying into thousand foot towers, killing thousands of people who went to work that day. I won’t be around to see that. So I’ve gotten to work on assigning my own meaning to it.

9/11 is not about patriotism for me, not in the classical chest-thumping way. It doesn’t fill me with grief as much as it used to either. And I’ve long since unburdened myself from the anger of it all. I’m in that sweet season of reflective distance. And here’s what I’ve grabbed onto.

Our people, America, didn’t start this journey to be a nation free of pain, suffering or danger. We never intended for us to sidestep the troubles of the world and ensure a utopian existence. We didn’t intend to achieve perfection. Instead, we founded a nation on the basic human desire to be “more perfect”.  And since,  like many of the lives of the people that made it, our history has been marked by pain, suffering, injustice and failure. And like so many of us, our country has memories sometimes we cannot easily shake.

Yet we are still here .We are still standing. We are still striving to be more perfect.

I wasn’t raised with a great sense of faith. Instead, the grinding path my life has taken these past 15 years has led me to it. I’m still a bit of an amateur at sharing the Good Word though so I save if for when it’s truly and universally relevant. This is one of those times. There’s a story in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul describes a voyage he was taken on as a prisoner. He was on a ship that was caught in a terrible storm with no end in sight. Sometime during the voyage God spoke to Paul, telling him that he and the rest of the crew would survive, but they would have to abandon the ship or they would be lost.

The promise was that the people would make it, everything else was a throw away-even the thing that they thought was most important-the ship.  9/11 was my storm. The peaceful reality that I thought I lived in was my ship-the normal I promised my mother we would get back to. The ship isn’t the promise. The promise is us.

Looking back at that email that I sent to my mother, I would have worded it differently, knowing what I know now.  I would have told her that this was a disaster and the world we lived in was going to change forever and it may never come back-that we’ll never forget it as long as we live. There will be war and death and hard times ahead. I would tell her the honest truth-all of it. But I would tell her one more thing though. That even though this was never going to be ok, never going to be normal, we would be.

The world is a brutal, unforgiving place. 9/11 will always remind me of that. But it will also remind me of that one profound truth of the human experience. Making a people great doesn’t matter. We were never promised great. Great is an illusion. Stability is an illusion. It’s fragile and short lived. But the promise of a people striving together to be more perfect is enduring.

We are perfectly imperfect with the divine spark to be less so. We always will be. That’s the message of 9/11 that still matters.