When I was in high school, one of the greatest running jokes among
my friends was that we were living during the 1950's. We talked
about "plastics" and the "nuclear families," how repressed and uptight
everyone was, how with a conservative government we might revert
back to those patterns at any time. I often heard it remarked that
our headmaster, a rather out of touch grandfatherly figure, was
still stuck in the 50's. One of my classmates, a political activist,
liked to refer to himself as a "Red," wear a furry Bolshevik hat
and remark that he was "taking over the school." The iconography
girls in plaid skirts, fathers smoking pipes, blacklisted actors,
and anti-communist propaganda were common. But this was more than
a retro subculture. It was a statement comparing our present with
our country's past declaring that never again would we live sheltered
and superficial existences due to fear of difference and paranoia.
If we'd known Stalin and Lenin we would have invited them to go
smoke dope with us because they threatened America's closed, self-centered
worldview and rocked the boat.
Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we, the rebels,
might cherish safety over adventure, the known over the unknown.
Never did I expect to see so many of them, who daily grumbled about
the pushy Christian proselytizers, light a candle and pray. Never
did we expect to see ourselves as patriotic Americans standing at
war against a common enemy. We didn't believe in wars particularly
the kind America would be involved in. But in less than a week I
have seen all of this come to pass.
The Soviet Union fell when I was a small child. I can remember
when they changed the globe in our classroom but not an awareness
of why or what it meant. I've never known fear for my country or
fear for my safety as an American. Growing up I always had nightmares
about AIDS, plane crashes, and school shootings. All of these things
still matter to me just as much. None now feel trivial in hindsight.
But to fear the safety of your country itself, to imagine chemical
weapons being dropped on you and everyone you love is something
previously unknown to me. I wish, perhaps more than I've ever wished
for anything, that I could return to innocence.
But when I walked home after classes were canceled on Tuesday
I could see smoke behind the Washington Monument, just three blocks
from my apartment. When I walked alone through my neighborhood after
midnight, I saw tanks lining the streets and paused to look at them
in awe. But a policeman saw me watching and began to shout. "Hey
you! Come here!" Even I was suspect. When I was talking to a friend
online and my connection was momentarily interrupted, she began
to panic. "NEVER do that to me again!" she wrote. She didn't know
whether I'd died sitting in that computer lab, trying to tell her
I was all right. And, when I finally was able to return home to
Boston at the end of the week, my Amtrak sped through New Jersey
past the remains of the WTC across the river in Manhattan and I
saw the dark gray clouds filling the sky and imagined the debris
of paper and disintegrated bodies at their source. I am no longer
innocent. I no longer view community service announcements as a
nagging intrusion but a way of conveying news. War is now real and
I've never been so afraid.
I fear that in the years that follow we may see a return to a
50's mentality that Arabics may be all but blacklisted from some
businesses, the wings of America's youth will be clipped and our
privacy and dignity as individuals will suffer. I'm concerned that
much of the rest of my young adulthood will be spent being cautious
instead of experimenting, as I'd always intended, and that youthful
exuberance may, for a time, be interrupted by an infuriating sense
of rules and order. It doesn't seem quite fair probably because
it isn't. But after coming to understand the 50's images in a new
way I now realize that I am not the first and may not be the last
to face the conflicts of cautious living and carefree dying. I feel
like it's a very crushing blow to my generation and regret the fact
that we'll never be the same. But as I imagine boarding an American
Airlines flight to Los Angeles half expecting to see Bin Ladden
through the window, crouched on the wing and ripping out the engine,
I am hard pressed to know what to suggest. Caution? Or freedom?
Living my life in fear? Or perhaps one day not living anymore? Can
these really be the only choices? Will I ever know a college that
feels like a college again?
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