What does it mean to belong to the 9/11 generation?
When Vice President Joe Biden applied this label to this year’s graduating class at West Point, he noted that the cadets were “young enough that that tragic day need not have shaped your lives.” Indeed, we may have moved on from 9/11 and, for many Americans, the war on terror registers as all but invisible. My high school students, however, fit the vice president’s criteria for membership in the 9/11 generation—those old enough to remember the day, in elementary school on the day. They have been shaped perniciously by events traceable to September 11, 2001.
I came to the idea of teaching 9/11 and the war on terror in 2005 after realizing that my upper-middle-class public school students knew very little about either. Seven years on, a trend has emerged: Opinion polls show diminished enthusiasm for the war, and my classes’ moral outlook has hardened.
The tough-mindedness of these kids shows in their comments: Civilian death in war is inevitable, justifiable collateral damage. It is acceptable to kill disarmed, nonresisting captives in the war on terror. Competition between people and nations is good because it sorts successes from failures and improves the species. (“By the way,” one high achiever added, “I don’t want to go to school with those failures!”) Turning the other cheek to violence, or using Gandhian civil disobedience, is pointless and not applicable today. International tribunals of justice are futile. Accused captives might just as well be summarily executed. It does no good to protest an unjust war because those in power would be unresponsive or would punish dissenters. Such protest is also unpatriotic.
Students articulate these ideas stridently. The occasional outlier who challenges them is in for a lonely fight.
A recent encounter with this kind of thinking came as my “war on terror” class read journalist Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. In his account of the war in Iraq, Filkins describes two U.S. Marine snipers making snap judgments about shooting insurgents hiding among noncombatants. “We dropped a few civilians,” one of them admitted, “but what do you do?” Ecstatic over his insurgent body count, the other shrugged off a civilian’s death saying, “I’m sorry, but the chick got in the way.” No one in class saw that woman’s death as avoidable. Asked if it would have been better to let the guerrillas go and not put civilians at risk, no one thought so.
In an essay invoking the scene, a student compared the war to “a violent video game. Players [like the sniper] want to test their skill, and sometimes they make mistakes.” This metaphor typifies a generational outlook. Prone to connect killing with gaming, the 9/11 generation engages violence in different ways than did the baby boomers. They ingest violent imagery more frequently on a subconscious level, and they encounter it more systematically in daily life.
Recent scholarship on childhood and adolescence has linked a proclivity to violence with rampant consumerism, video games, computers, social media, and the contradictory messages American popular culture sends young people. “Virtual” violence is unprecedented for blending visual intimacy, realism, and interactivity accompanied by the emotional distance of electronica.
Sure, expert study of kids and violence can sound alarmist, but almost none of it has inquired into the war on terror’s effects. Yet, as one student told me, that war has been the “background noise” of the 9/11 generation’s formative years. This includes graphic images of torture, mutilation, death, and humiliation: from Abu Ghraib to recent YouTube videos of U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. It also involves American leaders publicly promoting the use of torture, including simulated drowning or “waterboarding,” and celebrating the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden. Young people absorb all this, and it desensitizes them.
Undismayed about violence, the 9/11 generation finds competition bracing. Some of their sentiments about the value of competitive struggle can be chalked up to middle-class anxiety. Getting into the right college has become an adolescent rite of passage consuming immense familial energy and money. My students are high school juniors and seniors running flat-out toward that goal; they learn to see classmates, and the world generally, as rivals. After all, how many times have they been told they are being groomed “to compete in the global economy”?
Sometimes imbibing the cultural cocktail of graphic gaming, academic competition, and desensitization to violence can be lethal. It is suggestive that several of the shooting rampages in the news over the past few years, including the recent Colorado-theater debacle, were perpetrated by young people who either washed out of higher education or imagined themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Their perceived failure apparently triggered a downward spiral from reality, eroding the boundaries between movies, games, and real life. Of course, these constitute extreme cases, but they emerge from a context of callousness.
In my classroom, I have found ways to make headway against such callousness: The right questions challenge students. I ask about civilian deaths in previous wars and how the perpetrators are judged historically, whether killing civilians advances U.S. interests in counter insurgencies, what my students know about the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and about my kids’ personal morality and its sources.
Guest speakers who have seen combat offer a terrific antidote to kids who sound blasé about killing. I have had veterans visit my classes repeatedly; they never fail to challenge stereotypes about war. Whether talking about an Afghan boy run over and killed by a U.S. military vehicle, his grieving parents, or their own post-traumatic-stress disorder, the vets put the humanity back into war’s victims. My school has hosted survivors of the Holocaust and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who do the same, while invariably expressing reverence for life.
Recent scholarship on childhood and adolescence has linked a proclivity to violence with rampant consumerism, video games, computers, social media, and the contradictory messages American popular culture sends young people."
Getting different perspectives on violence matters, too. My classroom went quiet when a vet’s wife said that going to war had “sucked out his soul like what dementors do to people in Harry Potter"; the simile hit kids perfectly. They peppered another guest, a clinical psychologist who treats victims of torture, with questions. She had traveled to Guantanamo Bay and evaluated two detainees held there since they were teenagers and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” My students were also moved by a field trip they took to the 9/11 Tribute Center near Ground Zero. They were bowled over by docents who lost loved ones on 9/11, but refused to succumb to hate.
Films also work. The Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War” shocks my classes, especially when former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara talks about the need for proportionality of violence in war and admits that his role in the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II was a war crime. As an old man, McNamara appeared in the movie looking for ways back to his humanity.
To succeed, my questions, the speakers, the literature, and the films have to break through kids’ tendency to detach. These techniques must also engage this generation’s unique moral potential. Many of my students are enthusiastic about community service, sensitive to ethnic and sexual diversity, and committed to anti-bullying efforts and animal rights. Some are creative artists, actors, and musicians. They often reveal playful senses of humor, and they have a high capacity for candor. Quite a few have traveled widely and have heightened regard for cultural differences. They do not incline to ethnic stereotyping, and they evince a cosmopolitan awareness. I respect their honesty, am amazed by their talent, and I like them. The dissonance between what they say in class and how they behave generally shows how varied their influences are and how difficult it is to pigeonhole them.
I believe we adults must work to reorient their moral compasses while facing up to the fact that a war culture has existed for over a decade. It has coarsened us and shaped the 9/11 generation. Over that same decade, we have obsessed about “leaving no child behind” and “racing to the top” educationally. But what good is academic success if it comes coupled with moral vacuity?
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as The 9/11 Generation: An Exit Strategy for Moral Hardness in the Classroom