On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the vast majority of today’s college students were still in elementary or middle school, far too young to grasp the full implications of a terrorist attack against the United States, yet old enough for that day to live on in our memories as a significant historical milestone.The key sentiment of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was one of unity. President Bush, likely understanding that his reaction would be a defining moment of his presidency, urged the nation to unite behind a military response to the attacks and new security measures, and Congress promptly pushed through a broad foreign and domestic policy package in accordance with these aims.
Within a month and a half, a force composed mostly of US troops invaded Afghanistan and President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law. Within about a year and a half, the Department of Homeland Security began its operations and the US became engaged in another conflict, supported in large part out of fear of another attack — the Iraq War. However, many of the policies and actions born out of the unity of September 11 eventually served to divide the country.
Drawing on unifying rhetoric, our nation promised vengeance against its attackers and plunged hastily into war. First, we went after the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring al-Qaeda, successfully ousting them and installing another government under Hamid Karzai. Unfortunately, not only did Karzai prove to be a fickle and corrupt ally, he was incapable of unifying Afghanistan under his rule, allowing chaos, terrorism and threats to American security to fester. Predictably, the American public began to question the purpose and value of continuing the war as it became the longest-lasting conflict in US history. Though the recent death of Osama bin Laden brought a return to national unity, it was short-lived and did not reverse the war weariness of the American public.
This wedge in America was driven deeper when the Bush administration’s main justification for the Iraq War — that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction with the capability to harm the US and its allies — was proven false. Popular goodwill evaporated as America found itself bogged down in a hole of its own making, with mounting casualties, nonstop deployments and orders and gory images filling the media.
Domestic policies added to the nation’s division. The Patriot Act ate away at American rights in the name of security (bringing to mind Benjamin Franklin’s adage that those who would sacrifice essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither). The Department of Homeland Security’s new Transportation Security Administration, with its ever-changing list of increasingly arbitrary and reactionary regulations, cast wide nets of suspicion on entire classes of innocent people in the name of safety.
Domestic division also manifested itself in the public sphere. Racial and religious prejudice increased dramatically, inflaming tensions among communities. The media ran disparaging portrayals of entire groups of people, especially Arab and Muslim Americans, and acts of racial and religious hatred spiked as personal emotions ran high. The combination of social and governmental mistreatment and denigration created barriers among the American people and made a mockery of the saying,“United we stand, divided we fall.”
Despite these rash actions in response to this horrific national tragedy, a glimmer of unity prevailed, with students and young people everywhere as its torchbearers. Unified by the common experience of growing up in the post-9/11 world, America’s newest generation sought to rekindle a spirit of common purpose.
Young people unified through both rhetoric and action. They built bridges between communities, especially those shunned or alienated by rash government policies or popular perception and attitudes. They volunteered in disadvantaged and ignored neighborhoods, tying them into the national fabric and giving them a voice in our social discourse. They clamored for our civil liberties when they were under attack, protested the degrading treatment of innocent targets of prejudice and helped foster a unified America spanning people of all creeds, races and religions.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we as young people and as students should continue to actively promote an ethos of unity while evaluating the policies and events of the past decade. For those of us who have spent half of our lives or more in the post-9/11 era, it is especially vital that as we seek security at home and abroad, we continue to hold true to the deeply held values of unity, liberty and acceptance that define our nation.
Chasel Lee is the events director for the Cal Berkeley Democrats. Tom Hughes is the political director for the Cal Berkeley Democrats