Through prism of tragedy, generations are defined
Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Sunday. Nov. 22, 1963, the assassination of JFK. Ask Americans who recall these dates, and they can tell you where they were, what they were doing, how it felt and how old they were at the time.Skip to next paragraph
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Big events, and the mood shifts they trigger, change our lives. They compel us as generations to interact with history. By the responses of parents and leaders, the collective personalities of older generations are revealed. And by the impressions gained by youth, the sensibilities of younger generations are shaped which, given time, will determine how the nation responds to the next big event.
We now reflect on the legacy of another big event. Few will ever forget the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Almost certainly, it defines another meeting between history and generations whose long-term meaning is only beginning to emerge.
For those in the fading "G.I. Generation" who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, and are now in their late '70s on up 9/11 is an end-of-life affirmation. America is experiencing a replay of their adrenaline-filled launch into adulthood. Once again, it is a time for big institutions to play grand roles, for citizens to reaffirm their trust in nationhood, for neighborhoods to band together, for people to talk less and do more. From the likes of George Shultz or Henry Kissinger, we hear plain-spoken directions about how to project American power. Having so long regarded them as our "hero" generation, we thirst all the more for a new young generation of heroes now that we see them pass away.
For the retiring "Silent Generation," now in their '60s and '70s, 9/11 is worrisome. Polls confirm that these World War II-era children have aged into the most war- and casualty-averse Americans, the most ardent supporters of the UN, and the biggest advocates of committee-scripted process. They're the first generation not to have produced a US president. They've cultivated a gray-flannel reputation not as strong leaders but as the consummate technocrats and mediators of a civic order built by their more powerful next-elders. It makes them feel as Joseph Nye, the Harvard scholar, wrote recently that "America does not understand the complexities and ambiguities of its own power."
The most conspicuous voices of caution are coming from the likes of Colin Powell, Larry Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Armey. Even prowar Silents like Jim Baker or Pat Moynihan prefer we follow a process of communication and consensus with allies. This generation is distressed by "good versus evil" choices, reminding them of the worst nightmares of their childhood the internment of minorities, the need for blind obedience, the rigid gender roles, and the trashing of civil liberties.
For the "Boomer Generation," now in their '40s and '50s, 9/11 is empowering. All their lives, Boomers have always believed that values come first. Now that they dominate national leadership, they're framing policies that focus on character, culture, goodness, and justice high principles that often rule out peaceable compromise. The first Boomer president, Bill Clinton, once complained that history provided no great crisis against which he could prove his mettle. Now history has dealt such a crisis to George Bush who, as even his detractors concede, has become a more effective leader now that he sees in 9/11 as "a moment we must seize to change our culture and overcome evil with greater good."