What would you march for?

A little over a year ago I was one of six students who shared a dinner table at Harvard with former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm. Because he's known as an intense free thinker, it was no surprise when, in the midst of political small-talk and potatoes and gravy, he clanked his fork on his plate and looked around the table.

"I want to know, what would you guys ... what would your generation march for?" He went around the table, and each of us muttered, pretending we could actually think of some cause for which we'd go to the streets. Whether a testament to coming of age in an era of peace and prosperity or to a selfish generational group psychology, none of us could come up with an issue that could move us to storm Washington.

Mr. Lamm's question stuck with me. So did the dearth of answers.

But I found the answer was close to home. Until last spring, "I'm from Littleton, Colo." elicited little response from anyone here or abroad.

Last month, researching in a village in rural Ghana, I was asked by the chief where I was from. I said Colorado, and he said, "Oh, that's where the two crazy kids shooting everyone were." So I was half a world away when I realized that my town, my state, my country, and my generation were fast becoming infamous, and that little was being done to curb the causes of our infamy.

In the time since the Columbine High School massacre - and amid the subsequent wave of shootings - associated issues and stories have surfaced repeatedly in newspapers across the country. President Clinton proposes this, child psychologists report that, and the school district of such and such a town announces new security measures. Politicians, educational administrators, doctors, police - a lot of people and groups have spoken up or taken action after Columbine.

Yet, it strikes me that we've heard little from those who are arguably most affected by tragedies like Columbine: young people.

I don't know if my generation would march for gun control, but I am pretty sure that it should march for gun control. It's an issue that is increasingly becoming our own.

My generation is affected by the fact that there are 223 million firearms in American homes. When National Rifle Association members self-righteously toss out arguments about "freedom," my generation should react with justifiable indignation. What about the freedom of a 14-year-old to feel safe at school?

Some politicians will cite the Second Amendment and argue that gun control isn't the answer - guns don't kill people, people kill people. My generation should send its truckloads of letters using our fresh familiarity with US history to argue that the Founders would be proud to know we no longer need guns.

If my generation were to march, campaign, shout, sing, stomp, letter-write, and mass e-mail for gun control, the fruits of its efforts would go beyond whatever few legislative changes might result. The real change, the paradigm shift unique to mass movements, would be one affected by the proclamation implicit in our efforts: We, the young people of America, assert our right to feel safe, to come of age in communities governed by ethical principles, and to have a voice - a voice that we claim along with all of its privileges and responsibilities.

The 1960s are an oft romanticized era, but whatever one's opinion of that time, it was a time when the younger Americans got the attention of government in a way that they had never done before, and never have since.

The fact that my dinner companions couldn't come up with an answer to what we'd march for indicated not only that America has lost the energy of a socially conscious youth, but that my generation is squandering an opportunity to be a part of the social and political consciousness of this country.

In the aftermath of Columbine, with a presidential election year coming, my generation has a unique opportunity to use its numbers and spirit to claim an issue as its own, to answer the question: What would you march for?

*Daniel Baer, from Littleton, Colo., is a senior at Harvard University. He co-wrote 'High School Survival' and 'College Survival' (Macmillan).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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