I was 16 years old when a handful of men flew 747’s into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and changed the world forever. I used to count towards the millennium when I was a child, figuring I would be 15 when it happened and this would be a serious milestone in my development. Crowded and cold in Times Square on December 31t, 1999 seems so insignificant when I consider what happened less than two years later.
On September 11th, 2001, I drove my car home early from high school, figuring no one would notice if I skipped school early. My mother barely noticed me when I got home as she was glued to the television set. My mother used to live in the World Trade Center when she was a newscaster, but for once her media literacy lectures weren’t kicking in as she watched the planes smash into the buildings over and over and over again on cable news. I myself was less concerned with stories and broadcast photos of violence and more interested in the bright lights over Afghanistan. At the lunch table the next day, my friend whose father was in the CIA once confidently stated we would be going to war and that Kabul would be ours in a week.
Nobody really cared about what would happen in a serious way. People cared more about buying American flags for their bumpers than who was going to get run down by the business end of a Hellfire missile. The next few years were dark. I remember when we began our campaign of “shock and awe” over Iraq, I was violently vomiting into a black garbage bag on my father’s couch, watching the bright lights and utter destruction on television but propelled more by a sense of food poisoning than disgust of war and its torments.
I got seriously political around the 2004 election. I’d never liked George Bush, but the growing concern I felt about Guantanamo Bay and the growing scale of our wars abroad bloomed completely during the election season. I got a job out of a forty year old strip mall going door to door and signing up people to vote. A lot of hurricanes had ripped through Florida that summer and I remember something inside me changed very much when I stood on a front step talking to a woman about the importance of civil engagement while she stood ankle-deep in water in her foyer. I walked behind a FEMA worker as he too went door-to-door, writing checks to people who hadn’t seen a penny since August. “I’m writing these checks for George Bush!” he said with a big grin. I’d knock on a door and they would tell me: I’m sorry, I can’t vote. I’m a felon.
At my first real protest – a few days before the election when Bush visited my hometown – I was attacked by a group of people who were screaming and spitting at me, punching and kicking at me. I was accused of being a terrorist, of causing the death of someone’s brother in Viet Nam, of being a communist. I’d never considered such labels before, but certainly started to deconstruct their meanings afterwards. When Bush won the elections days later, I was sitting in my living room, drunk on cheap beer and crying. I didn’t get out of bed for days.
For someone who doesn’t watch a lot of television, I’ve sure had a lot of traumatic experiences in front of them. Fast forward four years and I’m watching the Israelis bomb Gaza, completely dumbfounded by the open arrogance, impunity, and destruction being sown in such a tiny strip of land. The next summer, I’m volunteering in Nablus, looking goggle-eyed up at martyr posters. The summer after that I’m back in Ramallah, working in an NGO and facing the reality of my tax money every time I go through a checkpoint, jump at a loud bang, whenever I see a product for sale with a Hebrew label but a big “MADE IN THE USA” on the side. I’m confronted with it every time I go walking to West Jerusalem to “cheat” and buy something at the pharmacy, or get Ethiopian food. I’m still glued to the story, to the narrative of forces beyond my control that seem to be moving us all closer to a big problem.
Lots of war has happened since I was 16. In comparison, World War II only lasted six years. Will we be bumping up against the 20-year record set in Viet Nam? It’s hard to say, since our targets seem to be constantly changing, since the bombs still demand their food. One conflict feeds into another and a new crisis is always around the corner. I’m supposed to have a family in this world. I’m supposed to retire someday, but when my mother is crying over her retirement account I have a hard time believing things will get any easier for me. This will be the tenth year since the most defining world event in my life and I don’t feel like things are getting better. No one else seems to be feeling that way, and most of my generation has backslid into cynicism and irony, preferring to slam a few drinks on a Friday night than sit and seriously discuss the future.
I focus a lot on youth involvement in civil society where I work. I’m almost jealous – Palestinians get money from Americans to gather their youth to seriously question decision-makers, but in my own country youth cares more about Facebook and reality television while decision-makers rob us blind of our futures. This kind of sapping apathy is trickling down, another product to be sold in our globalized markets. A handful of Palestinians are marching on a weekly basis to be violently dispersed while the rest focus more on improving their lot on an individual basis. Like the youth in America moving back in with their parents and taking jobs at health insurance companies, the Palestinians are more concerned with day-to-day issues. While they’re not the same as us, that same sort of escapism can be seen creeping in through the crop of new bars and cafes opening in Ramallah providing a place where you can stare at giant-sized photos of New York and London and pretend you’re elsewhere.
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who can see the direction we’re headed, but this can’t be true. The facts are out there and people are smart. But I guess we’re just waiting on something to change for us, or for someone to come along and say they’ll change everything for us. The best and the brightest dream of futures on other planets or trust that machines will pick up the mess we’ve made. Even the world’s oppressed majority depends on a vanguard that can barely articulate a philosophy to slam planes into buildings or blow themselves up in subways.
What has to change? At least we had an “uncola” with communism. Unlike my parents, who grew up under the threat of nuclear scare, a force that kept the forces of swift market globalization and steadied hands when it came to imperialist wars seems like a pretty positive force to someone like me. Yet communism sits in the gutter, a dream for myself at 22 and a sad memory for me at 26 when I long to live in that more-balanced world as much as I might long after a grandfather I barely knew before he died.
Since globalization offers a unity to my generation that was nearly unheard of in the past, I would suggest we find an alternative to postmodern cynicism and try and pump that through the system. Whatever it is, it has to change. I’ve traveled quite a bit and have an open ear to people Obama hasn’t spoken with and I am convinced that questions like poverty and hunger will not be answered under the current system. Something needs to break the back of this current system to make room for new kinds of thought. The system might break itself, for all I know, but I hope it doesn’t take too much down with it. Safeguards need to be in place for this ubiquitous, seemingly imminent collapse.
I’ve considered this decade since September 11th the most eventful of my lifetime. I’m young. Maybe it always seems this way at my age. Yet I don’t want to be startled with another decade of decaying trajectories and fears for the future. It would be nice to save up for a house or get married and have a family. I get the feeling, however, that this will require tearing me away from the narrative and throwing my hat in for the system. It’s probably not too hard to get a job paying a decent wage with my academic qualifications, but as a kid who used to ask everyone who they voted for and make my mother wake me up to tell me election results, as a young woman who walked door-to-door trying to get people involved, I always thought it was possible to reach out and put my efforts towards a higher cause than selling insurance or working at a dealership. I want to keep trying, but it keeps getting harder. Student loans start to nip at your heels and everyone asks when you’re going to get a real job.