Five years ago this evening (at the age of 20), I wrote an email to everyone I knew. In much the same manner I still write, I asked them to get involved in their community in some way; to give blood; to simply do something in a rallying cry of patriotism. In particular, I recall thinking and writing that it would be of utmost importance to support our political and military leaders in the wake of the day's events. "This is no time for petty differences," I wrote. Having just spent two years at the United States Naval Academy, I recall feeling an overwhelming sense of pride for our armed forces in the first few months that followed. I cheered a rush of bills such as the Patriot Act through Congress, and felt a sense of solidarity and justice when we launched attacks on the Taliban. I felt globally connected and respected as an American as overseas friends wrote to offer their condolences and support - particularly my Muslim friends. And during that first week, when President Bush stood atop the wreckage at Ground Zero and chanted "U.S.A." with New York's firefighters and policemen, I remember being proud of our country...and of the President. I "knew" I had made the right decision when I cast my first-ever vote for him in 2000.
What a difference five years can make.
At 25, it is difficult for me even to begin describing how I have changed, how the world has changed, or how my feelings in regard to the state of our country have changed; except to say this: I am heartbroken.
In 2001 I wrote, "If we do what (I know) we can...the United States and its people will emerge from the events of September 11th, 2001 as something greater than any of us or the world has known." Never, even in my most pessimistic visions, would I have imagined the State of the Union as it is today. I have racked my social networks and research outlets in search of a single meaningful way that the United States is even better than 5 years ago - much less "greater than the world has known" - and I can find nothing. That solidarity we all felt: gone. The pride and trust in our leaders: abused and obliterated. Our military and wars (plural): completely ineffective and bankrupting us at the same time. Our cultural awareness: warped, twisted and spun. Global respect: nonexistent to the point of embarrassment. Terrorists: greater in number, more effective, and gaining in credibility. The list goes on...
What I think many of us are left with in the wake of all this is extreme frustration, a sense of helplessness, and in many respects, a kind of unrequited love. If nothing else, I, and thousands of other young leaders, still love this country - even if its leadership and direction anger us. We wouldn't be hurt if we didn't care; and because we care, I believe we are still willing to try to win it back.
When I write "Hindsight at 25/30," I don't want to feel like I do today. I want to feel as though the love I have for my country is reciprocated in the form of positive action and sound policy. Crazy as it may seem, I believe this is possible. While 9/11 has certainly defined the last five years, I maintain that it has not yet defined this generation; and consequently doesn't have to define the next five years or thereafter. We still have a lot of reacting to do, and as a whole, our generation is highly educated, civicly engaged, and massive in size. Most importantly, it encompasses thousands of young leaders who care deeply for this country and are willing to do what it takes to create the type of positive change we need.
If we as a country do not change... If the ignorance, fear, and arrogance which have defined our last five years of direction remain true for the next five... then the terrorists who made that day in 2001 so infamous have won.
The "Greatest Generation" of my grandparents became so because they sacrificed, endured, and triumphed through an ideological challenge of another era. They built and became the "Arsenal of Democracy."
As I wanted to challenge my friends 5 years ago, I challenge this generation today to build an arsenal of our own; more powerful than a war machine or nuclear weapon. Let the target of our arsenal be fear. Our battlefields: the minds of those who harbor and promote ignorance. And may we humble ourselves in partnership with every corner of the earth.
Let us become the next Greatest Generation in our country and around the globe. Let us fulfill the potential we have for leadership in this country...and let us start on this day.