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Peaceniks or Overnight Patriots?

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


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."

In a similar vein, on October 31, the Orlando Sentinel ran a profile called "Teen Marine." The description for the piece reads: "His Peers Are Devoted to the Pursuit of Fun, But This 14-Year-Old Is Devoted To His Country." In the article, Junior Marine Corporal Danny Serrano expresses regret for being too young to join the armed forces. "I love my country a lot," he says. "I love the military. I just want to be a part with them and help out the United States, like right now in Afghanistan."

Recent evidence shows that most young people are not, in fact, rushing to join the army, but are simply paying closer attention to the news. According to an MSNBC article called "A New Generation of News Junkies," the number of 18-34 year-olds who turned into CNN grew from 16 to 45 percent the first five weeks after September 11. The article, which, is focused more on demographics and advertising opportunities for news organizations than on the social implications of the shift, also suggests that youth are spending more time reading newspapers. "The New York Times' September newsstand circulation was up 37 percent for the month after tripling its retail print run to a record 1.3 million from Sept. 13-15," the article reported.

Then, of course, there's the Internet. Many young people have turned to the Internet to inform themselves about the role the US has played in relation to other countries, especially the nations the Middle East. For a generation already accustomed to doing most of their research online, this electronic hunt feels a bit like cramming for a test in a much larger and more important classroom.

Supporting the story of American youth's hunger for news is a recent Christian Science Monitor article, "Trade Center Attacks Reactivate Campus Activism" which argues that the rush to dissect war news has resulted in a heightened level of political awareness among students. The article also successfully avoids pigeonholing the youth it portrays, and is among the best published on the subject.

Samantha Fernandez, one young student interviewed in the article, describes feeling overwhelmed by contradicting messages from the media, the government and her fellow peace vigil-attending students. She expresses, "a confusing mix of patriotic feelings and a desire for forbearance."

The article also describes September 11 as a bubble bursting, a shock to the system that has caused all kinds of reevaluation. The author quotes Deepinder Mayell, a Boston University student, saying "I think people didn't recognize the responsibility of being a citizen, of being a member of a community before."

Mayell makes an important observation. And his statement poses vital questions: What does it mean to be a young American citizen in this age? Is it about joining an email listserve to stock up on masses of information? Or about spit-shining your combat boots? Can "being a responsible community member" or even an informed "citizen of the world" occur overnight? And will watching more CNN help any of us do that?

While you don't hear it as often, the sentiment that "things will never be the same" is still echoing in many young minds. For the first few weeks after September 11, it was impossible to find a teenager or young adult in the news doing anything more than mourning or looking shocked. But now, the media is finally acknowledging the fact that some younger people may, in fact, have something to say.

What does it mean to be a young American citizen in this age? Is it about joining an email listserve to stock up on masses of information? Or spit-shining your combat boots?

Even David Brooks who, just six months ago, wrote a scathing criticism of students at Princeton for being too self-involved and obsessed with personal success, has now officially revised his outlook. In "The Organization Kid Revisited," he says, "You go back to a place like Princeton or Yale now and immediately you start hearing about fervent debates around the dining hall tables, anguished wrestling with moral problems, and a general sense that the old fixed points of the universe have been shaken loose."

At the same time, some find it difficult not to see this revitalization as gimmicky or, at the very least, overtly, self-consciously smug. In articles like the one published in Newsweek, we hear about a whole generation that has come of age without the kinds of crises that really unite people. "We've had no JFK, no Vietnam" you hear again and again. Never mind those "little projects" like opposing arms sales or corporate influence on politics.

Things have changed. They will continue to change. But today's youth were not as apolitical before September 11 as is widely argued. Nor have they become overnight patriots. Their views are varied and complex and they will, most likely, remain that way. *

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