Seven Years Later, a Service Mandate

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK -- It seems appropriate that on the seventh anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, both presidential candidates are here in New York, at a university, calling upon the need for national service.

As an entering college freshman, I was ready for that call after September 11th, 2001. The powerlessness I experienced on that day was utterly and pervasively overwhelming. Despite my greatest hopes, I could not catch those who threw themselves hundreds of stories out of a burning skyscraper. Despite my strongest prayers, I could not keep the towers from tumbling down, one after the other.

What could I do? How could I help? How should I serve?

The response I received from President Bush was disappointing. On September 15th, when asked what sacrifices Americans should be expected to make, he stated, "Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever... I urge people to go to their business on Monday."

Go to my business? I was a student choosing a course of study that would inform my ultimate career path. I wanted my leadership to frame for me the new challenges our country would undoubtedly face in a post-9/11 world, so that I could structure my studies to meet those challenges. And I was told to go shopping?

To his credit, John McCain has criticized the tremendous opportunity lost to call upon all Americans to serve in that moment of need. "After 9/11, I think we made a mistake by telling Americans they ought to go on a trip, or shop. I think we should've told Americans to join the military, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, volunteer organizations -- all of the organizations that allow people to serve this nation." Tonight he reiterated that position, stating "obviously at that time we needed to take advantage of the unity [...] to ask for a concrete plan of action on the need for us all to serve."

But I remain suspect of what McCain means when he speaks of "service." Every time he mentions it, his first reference is to the military. At one point in the conversation, McCain criticized Columbia's policy of disallowing the ROTC from recruiting members on campus. With all due respect to Mr. McCain, I went to an undergraduate institution that did allow such recruitment, which was marketed as "leadership training" for "weekend warriors." Those former classmates are now serving in Iraq in a conflict that was conducted based on false premises. Although they serve proudly, they had no reason to suspect in 2001 that our country would be in Baghdad in 2008.

Paradoxically to the traditions of his party, McCain's conception of service entails an individual subsuming his or herself within the larger constructs of a hierarchical organization. It is Obama's success story which reflects the merits of the social entrepreneur, self-organizing from the outside to reform within, to effect beneficial change.

That is why it is particularly bothersome to me that in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin chose to deride Obama's service as a community organizer. It seems worth noting that as the leader of ProjectVote, Obama helped to register more voters (150,000) than the number who voted for Palin in the 2006 Alaskan gubernatorial election (114,697).

"Inspiring young people to serve is something the president is uniquely positioned to do," Obama said tonight. "We should encourage young people, the best and the brightest, to get involved in public service. I want every young person around this country to realize that they will not realize their full potential until they hitch their wagons to something bigger."

That is a sentiment I wish the president would've expressed seven years ago today.

Jonathan Host is a graduate student at Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs.