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Will War on Terrorism Define a Generation?

Historians ponder to what extent the attacks will be a true turning point for society.

September 23, 2001|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush says it's going to be the centerpiece of his administration. Colin Powell at the State Department, along with Sen. John McCain and a cadre of Capitol Hill lawmakers, are priming the American public for a long, hard campaign akin to the Cold War, or the U.S. home front during World War II.

The crusade they speak of is a massive anti-terrorism "war," to be waged militarily on the geopolitical front, as well as socially on the domestic front. In the halls of Congress and from high-tech bully pulpits across the land, the terrorist attacks are being described over and over as a turning point, the start of a potentially defining epoch for an entire generation.

Many Americans have begun scanning their hearts and minds, trying to comprehend the role they may be asked to play in a rapidly unfolding national epic. Are we, as some claim, on the brink of a period that will profoundly transform us politically and/or socially, as did the Great Depression, the Cold War, the civil rights era? Have we just witnessed a 21st century version of the Cuban Missile Crisis or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat? Or will this make-over be far more limited, as it was with the '70s oil shock, pooling then quickly dissipating like spent petrol fumes?

To spin the questions somewhat differently, is history thrusting a new script on an untried generation that few have yet thought to call The Greatest? How might this test differ from those faced by previous generations?

As they scan their TV sets and swap e-mails, historians and cultural observers reflected earlier this week on the forces that can transform--or fail to transform--a singular event into a generational touchstone.

What type of sacrifice will this new epoch entail? Will it rely on voluntary compliance or, to borrow Noam Chomsky's chilling phrase, manufactured consent?

Crucially, will this tragedy set the standard for life-altering experiences and collective obligations over the next several decades, or will it leave a fainter imprint?

"Many people thought on Nov. 22, 1963, that they had experienced a transformative moment," says Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. "Well, that turned out to be much less transformative than anybody anticipated. Partly because there was a transition in administrations, and there was an agenda that continued to be popular. Johnson actually proceeded with Kennedy's agenda, but more so. Being the master politician that he was, he was actually able to ram the civil rights bill through."

In other words, while terrible occurrences like last week's attacks can prompt political action and shape short-term popular perceptions, they're only one part of history's broader flow. Many historians believe, for instance, that while the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria sparked World War I, it's likely that military and colonial rivalries and surging nationalism would have led to war among Europe's great powers sooner or later anyway.

"The attacks obviously [dealt] a huge blow to the national psyche, and if I were in the guessing game, I would guess the psychic reverberations are likely to be complicated," Gitlin says. "To assume that the public is ready to sign up for the crusade that's been offered ... I think would be a mistake. ... I think opinion hasn't crystallized. There's certainly space for a variety of policy options."

Indeed, generation-defining events seldom take place overnight. Most unfurl over years, if not decades. They also come in many forms: Wars. Economic crashes. Sexual revolutions. New technology such as cars, sputniks, computers, atomic bombs. Some create more casualties than others, but none is entirely bloodless or victimless.

For people in their teens and early 20s, those who often bear the brunt of war, the prospect of being tested by history may appear to be a mixed blessing, at best. "Any generation that welcomes a 'test' in the form of war doesn't understand war," says Jedediah Purdy, 26, a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and author of "For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today."

In an e-mail interview last week, Purdy wrote that it has been "amazing to see how in these past few days we--who have been so used to living with our selves front and center--are suddenly all aware that a common condition comes first. We have not been flip, self-involved, needlessly sarcastic or focused on small divisions. We have all been looking for ways to help. All of us. That is new to us."

At the same time, he continued, while the challenges posed by the attacks could "maybe make us better in some way ... in the end it might have been a better thing not to be tested at all. Violence is a terrible way to be reminded what we're made of."

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