By David Rohde
(Reuters) - In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called "the 9/11 generation," the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.
"They're a generation of innovators," he declared. "And they've changed the way America fights and wins at wars."
The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw's similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.
"He shouted to me over the noise of a helicopter before heading back to Baghdad: ‘Surely, General, this is America's new greatest generation'," Petraeus recalled. "I agreed with him then, and I agree with him now."
I agree as well. There is a kernel of truth - and hope - in both statements. There is a 9/11 generation, one that extends beyond the valiant military members both men correctly hailed. Instead, it includes all Americans who experienced the attacks and responded to them over the last decade.
Its members include the tens of thousands of civilians who worked as diplomats, aid workers and contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq; the millions of police, firemen and teachers who stabilized American society in the fall of 2001 and subsequent years; and the tens of millions of innovative businesspeople and workers who brought the American economy roaring back after the attacks.
As a reporter, I covered the 9/11 generation in action. From the collapse of the World Trade Center, to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the death of Osama bin Laden, I watched them toil though a bewildering decade.
Egregious mistakes were made and the threat of terrorism still lingers. Yet the 9/11 generation has largely won its struggle. Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is greatly weakened. And by remaining steadfast allies of the moderate Muslims who have joined the struggle against militancy, the threat of terrorism will continue to be minimized.
By any measure, the 9/11 generation is a greatest generation that can now innovate American society back to prosperity. Why, as a generation and society, do they continue to doubt themselves so deeply?
Among Americans, the weakness that I witnessed over the last decade was not incompetence or cowardice in the field. It was growing dogmatism at home.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, blind belief in one's own political views was rare. The soldiers, CIA officers, diplomats and aid workers I met did not see the world in terms of political parties. They did not question the intelligence or morals of anyone who disagreed with them. Instead, they generally listened, searched for pragmatic solutions and found that sacrificing for others gave great meaning to their own lives.
The opposite was true in the halls of power and on partisan cable news television shows in the U.S. On the home front, bias, denigration and bombast triumphed. On the battlefield, principle, pragmatism and sacrifice prevailed.
At one point over the last decade, I was kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for seven months. I despised my captors and saw them as a group of criminals masquerading as a pious liberation movement. What struck me was the fact that the Taliban questioned our values.
Americans were selfish, feared death and interested only in the pleasures of this world, they told me. We were greedy, impatient and did not stand by our promises. Any Muslim who worked with us, they said, was as well. The vast majority of Americans I met in the field proved them utterly wrong. So did the moderate Afghan journalist who was kidnapped with me and eventually helped me escape.
I now live a few blocks from the World Trade Center. After bin Laden's death was announced, I went to the site to report on public reaction. Teenagers, most of whom were in grade school on September 11, 2001, chanted ugly slogans.
Four people weren't shouting. A 29-year-old Brooklyn army reservist was about to depart for Afghanistan on his fourth combat tour since 2001. He said he came to pay his respects to the dead. A 25-year-old Pakistani college student said bin Laden had defamed Islam. He said he hoped the Al Qaeda leader's demise would reduce tensions between the United States and predominantly Muslim countries.
A 43-year-old businessman from Philadelphia said he hoped bin Laden's killing would end ten years of war, economic collapse and bitter political division. And a 40-year-old construction worker from Queens said he hoped Americans would unite again as they had after 9/11.
"This country needs something to carry us forward," he told me.
Bin Laden's goal was to make Americans more dogmatic, to get us to see the world solely through the distorted lens of religious bigotry. The more we blamed all Muslims, the better for bin Laden. The greater our division and paranoia, the better for Al Qaeda.
The four members of the 9/11 generation who stood silently that night embodied the American values that are slowly defeating Al Qaeda: sacrifice, respect, unity and optimism. They are a new greatest generation.
They show that the lesson of the post-9/11 decade is humility, idealism and optimism, not arrogance, cynicism and division.
(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist and the opinions expressed are his own.)