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Peaceniks or Overnight Patriots?

How do young people feel about the war on terrorism? Depends on who you ask

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In an October 31 New York Times column called "These Spooky Times," for instance, Maureen Dowd describes a job fair at George Washington University in which the line for the CIA booth is longer than all the other lines combined. Dowd refers to this moment in the United States as a "weird inside-out image of the Vietnam era" and notes that on some large campuses the CIA and ROTC are now becoming "chic." It is unclear how many young people Dowd actually spoke to, but she paints a picture of the college environment as little more than a microcosm of a war-hungry nation. On the other hand, an article that ran two days earlier in the Los Angeles Times had a headline that read: "On Campus and Off, Antiwar Movements See New Vigor." In this article, Elizabeth Mehren, a Times staff writer, sites examples of widespread campus anti-war activism. She describes how it began at schools like UC Berkeley, UW Madison and Wesleyan, and has grown to include a campaign called "Peaceful Justice" and a "day of action" at over 150 schools. Although Mehren says that antiwar activism is seeing a "new vigor," she goes on to argue that in the year 2001, pacifism "feels almost polite" and lacks "the stridence of earlier generations of American protest."

Mehren and others point out that many young people participating in anti-war organizing are already versed in activism. One article by Claire Vannette, which also appeared on October 29 and ran on University Wire, portrayed Rebecca Anshell, a UC San Diego sophomore and activist who was an active member of the International Socialist Organization and the UCSD Peace Coalition before the events of September.

In the article, Anshell, whose blue eyes are "intense" and who is wearing an anti-death penalty T-shirt, is shown to be uncompromisingly committed to peace. But she doesn't exactly come across as the most complex thinker. When asked about backlash she calls those supporting the war "frat boys."

On the other hand, in the same U Wire article, Vannette presents Vince Vasquez, a young man with a "soft voice," whose demeanor she says contradicts his burgeoning patriotism. Vasquez says that those who oppose the war are "anti-American" and "honestly hate their country."

Both these types of students -- those extremely critical of the war and those who support it strongly -- seem to exist in large numbers. But where are the youth who fall in between? What about those who feel conflicted about what they hear on the news, from their peers, their families? Surely, the largest percentage of youth fall into this gray area.

By focusing on youth with the most extreme viewpoints, the mainstream media is continuing a typical pattern of generalization and over-simplification. Long before the Columbine shootings and the media reports engulfing them, it was commonplace to describe "today's youth" in broad, sweeping terms. At a time like this, taking an extreme stand can be a way to feel one has the power or the right to get involved. So it is disappointing (but still surprising) that mainstream media is attempting to pin them down and portray them as either vengeful conservatives or naive peaceniks.

Both these types of students -- those extremely critical of the war and those who support it strongly -- seem to exist in large numbers. But where are the youth who fall in between? What about those who feel conflicted about what they hear on the news, from their peers, their families?

Last week, Newsweek magazine ran a number of stories about "Generation 9-11." Behind a glossy cover graced by three appropriately mixed-raced kids looking gravely concerned, the article attempts to offer a definitive analysis of the lives of millions of younger Americans.

In the cover article, authors Barbara Kantrowitz and Keith Naughton tell us that this privileged, apathetic generation has found its "defining moment." They also say that only 28.1 percent of last year's freshman class reported following politics," an embarrassing number, to be sure. But then they jump to the fact that Newsweek found that "85 percent of the students they polled favored the current military action."

When the Newsweek story does acknowledge the student activism that has taken place in the past years it is described as "just a lot of. . .'little projects': protests against sweatshops or nuclear weapons." Similarly, they describe anti-war movements on campus as "scattered and nascent."

Newsweek's point is that an important shift has occurred for the under-25 population in the last two months. Now, not only are young Americans overwhelmingly compelled to inform themselves, argues Newsweek, but they are suddenly "politically involved" because they can claim their support for the war. At one end of the polarized set of options is complete anti-political apathy. At the other is a flag-waving, government-job-seeking buy-in. If you don't believe in the ideas behind this war, this widely read magazine indirectly implies, you don't belong in "Generation 9-11."

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