September 11, 2001, 10:30 am EST. This day's infamy is only just beginning to dawn as chaos fills the television screen, tears fill my eyes, and terror presses up into my throat. Both towers of the World Trade Center have collapsed completely. This is not a David Copperfield, made-for-TV magic trick. They're gone forever -- two steel-girded limbs brutally amputated from the New York City skyline by evil fanatics whom President Bush nervously referred to as "folks."
"Folks" are my family and neighbors. Those who orchestrated this bloody attack are not "folks." They are madmen. Monsters. Mass murderers. The president looked and sounded scared. And that scares me.
The phone pierces my solitary angst. From his office tower in Gaithersburg, Md., my husband says that he can see smoke clouds from the Pentagon where a plane has reportedly crashed. A friend who works for the Defense Department calls to say he's OK. He is mournful: "We let America down." All the rest of us can do now is pray and wonder and wait.
"It's like a movie. It's like it's not really happening." That's the shell-shocked refrain I hear over and over again from young eyewitnesses on TV. As their panicked voices melt in the background, this tragedy brings one truth into sharp focus: Mine is a pampered generation that has spent its collective life with its feet on the coffee table, its ample rear end planted into the living room sofa, and its jaded fingers on a remote control.
From the "Real World" and "Survivor," to "Boot Camp" and "The Fear Factor," what we know of conflict and survival and fear comes from the mind of cynical producers. From "Platoon" to "Saving Private Ryan" to "Pearl Harbor," what we know of pain and sacrifice and the terror of war comes from a Blockbuster rental store. We have a Wag the Dog cynicism about the military, and a shameful indifference toward the veterans who secured the peace and prosperity we have so selfishly enjoyed.
Before this day, we occupied our time manufacturing acts of self-victimization, squandering precious time, and feeling sorry for our poor young selves. In the headlines: news of young people committing hate crimes against themselves in a bid for attention and sympathy. On campus: new classes teaching porn while basic world history courses are dropped. And on the bestseller list: "Quarterlife Crisis," a book written by two spoiled twentysomethings bemoaning the "landmine period in our adult development" during the transition from college graduation into the "real world."
"When young adults emerge at graduation from almost two decades of schooling, during which each step to take is clearly marked," the book's publisher explains, "they encounter an overwhelming number of choices regarding their careers, finances, homes, and social networks." There are even seminars and support groups for these traumatized young people. "Confronted by an often shattering whirlwind of new responsibilities, new liberties, and new options, they feel helpless, panicked, indecisive, and apprehensive."
A generation that feels "helpless, panicked, indecisive, and apprehensive" because it has too many liberties and options is a generation in need of a real crisis. Now we have one. Yesterday was our Pearl Harbor. Our generational wake-up call. Our bloody moment of shattered self-complacency.
It's time to grow up, get real, and finally grasp, like generations before us, that freedom is not free.