Paths to patriotism

Since Sept. 11, many Young Americans have wrestled with an odd new feeling

Bronwyn Burnett doesn't fit the usual image of an American patriot.

Ask the student of fine arts if she'd be willing to serve in the armed forces, and she politely declines, explaining, "I would really not be able to be myself if I were in any kind of military."

Ask her if recent events have kindled an interest in the actions of her government, and the 20-something responds, "A lot of the politics out there isn't something that interests me."

Ask her how she feels about the war on terrorism, and she struggles to find the words: "I don't know that I can judge that," she says. "The whole situation is out of my hands, is what I feel like."

She is, in many respects, a spokeswoman for her generation. Long derided as individualistic, even apathetic, young Americans today seem not to have been changed much by the world-altering attacks of Sept. 11. While 8 in 10 Americans support the war on terrorism, only 57 percent of college students approve. Following Sept. 11, military records show, the enlistment rate hardly budged.

A second Pearl Harbor this was not, it seems.

But this July 4, don't tell Ms. Burnett that she and her generation don't love their country – and haven't been touched by Sept. 11.

For most, it has nothing to do with the daily routine. True, some have been moved to actions that echo the "greatest generation" – such as offering even their joint and sinew to the cause of freedom by enrolling in the military. But more are like Burnett, who sits outside the library at Portland State University in Oregon with no stars-and-stripes pin on her clothes and no thought of how she'll spend Independence Day.

Among these young Americans, children of unprecedented peace and prosperity, the change is something unrelated to festivals and fireworks. After years of being left to themselves to navigate through video games and parental divorce, political correctness and personal computers, they are now confronted with images and emotions they have never seen or felt. Sept. 11 might not have turned them into patriots in the mold of those who stormed the beaches at Normandy, but it is stirring unfamiliar – and as yet unresolved – feelings of conflict, as many young adults struggle to reconsider America and their place in it.

"It is a disturbance at a deep level," says Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at New York University. "It's not actionable – it's not working on [young] people in a direct way. It's underneath."

Never have these young Americans been called on to sacrifice anything for a greater national cause. Indeed, many have been taught mainly to question their country and its symbols – from McDonald's impact on the Brazilian rain forests to America's interventions in Central America and the Middle East.

Outwardly, as 20-somethings themselves acknowledge, the cynicism and skepticism that have come to define this group seems to be intact. Nearly three-quarters of college students say they think the patriotism and unity sparked by Sept. 11 will fade, according to a poll by the Panetta Institute at California State University in Monterey Bay.

That's not surprising, say sociologists. Today's 20-somethings have been shaped by the experiences of their youth, just as the GI generation's self-sacrifice grew from the hardships of the Great Depression, and the baby boomers' antiestablishment ideals were forged amid the tumult of Vietnam. Generations X and Y, for their part, are latchkey kids or children of divorce – experiences that taught them independence. The advent of cable TV has catered to their every entertainment need and acquainted them with every political scandal. The might of money in politics has told them that only the wealthiest have a say.

The result, say observers, is a generation of survivors who rely on themselves. When it comes to politics, they have concluded that people can make a difference only when they act locally. In turn, their sense of patriotism is narrower than anything that has come before.

Burnett says she sees America not in the flag or the military, but in a yellow school bus that reminds her of her youth. Fellow student Lisa Tengo says being a good citizen means concentrating on "things that are more localized."

"I don't think being a good citizen means you can or can't burn the flag or anything great and ideal," she says. "I think it just means to be a good person."

This mentality has taken its toll on the tradition of service to the country. Ms. Tengo, for one, has never voted and vows that she never will. "It's one of those 'What's the point?' kind of things," she quips. "I feel like my life would be the same no matter who's in office, so I don't really care."

Her words may be extreme, but they are poignant. Surveys repeatedly show that many young Americans have little interest in their government – and Sept. 11 didn't change that. The Panetta poll shows that only 34 percent of college students are interested in running for elected office, and when asked how they could effectively bring change, more respondents chose volunteering than voting in a presidential election.

"There is a gap developing where young people really do not sense a duty to participate in the process," says Leon Panetta, head of the institute and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton. "They clearly care about issues, but the disconnect is that they don't see Washington as relevant to what they believe in."

Equating that with the death of patriotism, though, would not be correct.

Observers note that today's young people, since 9/11, haven't been asked to do anything except go out and spend money. In the absence of a draft or a call for volunteers, they say, it's impossible to know how they would act if they were truly called upon.

One survey found that 37 percent of college students today said they would avoid a draft, but some critics retorted that a similar survey during Vietnam might have yielded a far larger number.

"These young people are pretty strong patriots, but not necessarily in the American Legion style," says A.J. Shragge, a lecturer at the University of California in San Diego. He says that his students contributed generously to a Girl Scout campaign that sent boxes of cookies to troops in Afghanistan. "Here was some little thing they could do."

"There are not a lot of obvious outlets for patriotism," he adds. " 'Get on with life' was the only message."

As their lives go on, though, it's evident that Sept. 11 is forcing many young Americans to rethink their detachment from their country. To them, American government does not evoke images of President Franklin Roosevelt fighting the Nazi empire or Lyndon Johnson battling the scourge of racism. Instead, it is sketched entirely in the colors of President Clinton and his moral foibles, Congress in its vindictiveness, and the divisiveness of an unresolved election two years ago. Now, called on to celebrate the institutions many have always ridiculed, the transition is not an easy one.

"There's a lot of confusion now about what to do," says Daryl Maas, a young lieutenant in the Air Force. "We're not really sure how to feel."

For him, patriotism has always meant a clear-cut love of country. Blond and trim, the Air Force Academy grad enlisted right after high school, and he says he feels even stronger now about the need to serve his country. But it's not something he sees in many of his peers.

"Our country is so big and powerful, we're used to protesting against it," says Lieutenant Maas, who has spent time in Japan, Colombia, Spain, and the Czech Republic since joining the Air Force. "Our generation has looked down on blind patriotism, and ... some people have never had to decide where they stand. Before, we had the luxury of criticizing from a distance."

Since Sept. 11, the choice of cherishing or criticizing has been made – if anything – more urgent and complex.

Portland State student Burnett, who grew up with an artist father in the eclectic seaside town of Carmel, Calif., where Tudor-style British pubs mix with Gucci bags and groves of cypress trees, says the idea of war and violence is repulsive. She feels bad that America bombed Afghanistan: "I could never hurt anyone or be involved in that."

But the images of Sept. 11 evoked something unexpected in her, and she can't bring herself to condemn America's response. "I can't even describe all my emotions," she says as she twists a wire sculpture. "You can't just watch something like that and not cry ... and not hurt for your own country."

What happens from here may depend in large part on what happens next in the war on terrorism. After all, Pearl Harbor became a transcendent event because it was the start of something greater – a war that has since been cast as a victory over evil.

So it may be with Sept. 11 and the nascent stirrings of a new – but different – patriotism among young adults. "If the United States is able to contain terrorism," says Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., "then it will contribute ... to greater patriotism."

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