The “Baby Boomer” generation was coming of age when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down on Nov. 22, 1963. It was the first defining moment of a generation that would bear witness to a series of culture-shifting events over the next decade; events that included the Vietnam War and the assassinations of other iconic figures such as Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Beginning with that fateful moment in Dallas until the final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam 10 years later, America would never be the same.
Today, as we reflect upon the decade that transpired since the seminal moment of the new millennium, those of us who belong to the generations that followed the Baby Boomers find ourselves in a state of malaise and slow-moving transformation, unsure of our place in history. The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should have been our awakening. Instead, it is as though we were collectively numbed and placed in suspended animation. Our grief is still palpable but our actions have been muted and confused—our hopeful innocence resting silently beneath the rubble.
This week we will be inundated with remembrances of that horrible day with many waxing poetic about America coming together and paying homage to our unity. This is not one of those essays. For me, 9/11 is when it all fell apart. The sight of it, the smell of it… It’s all right there. The sick feeling in my gut never left—didn’t even dissipate. Tragically, the ensuing decade haunts me now as much as the day itself.
Hopefully, Sept. 12, 2011 we can begin putting the pieces back together again. Recall, however, how tumultuous the healing process can be as the decade that followed the end of the Vietnam War was rife with unrest and discontent; an unfortunate harbinger for the decade ahead.
From JFK’s assassination until the withdrawal from Vietnam, the “Hippies” of the Sixties and Seventies were on the right side of liberty. They were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. They protested the war and railed against greed and corruption. They challenged conventional wisdom and raged against the machine. They had no children, no responsibilities—only outrage and determination. In defining themselves they redefined America and over time naturally found themselves in charge.
And then it happened.
Over the next few decades the revolutionaries came to embody the status quo. The generation that fought racism, unjust wars and corruption began suffering from selective amnesia. After years of excess and living high on the hog, the Baby Boomers now control the world’s purse strings, and they’ll do anything not to let go.
When 9/11 overwhelmed our nation, we looked to them. Instead of offering guidance they led us to war. Twice. They assuaged their own guilt over the mistreatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam by teaching us to revere service during wartime. Yet they were too cowardly to allow photographs of those who returned home in pine boxes. They called those who spoke out against war “unpatriotic” even though it was this freedom that defined their youth. They famously told us to spend, not save, even though the “Greatest Generation” saved enough to support them after World War II. All we had to do was stay vigilant. Say something if we saw something. Shut our mouths and fall in line.
And since Wall Street was attacked it too became sacrosanct. Only it wasn’t Wall Street that died that day. It was people—people who deserve more than the resurgence of unrestrained capitalism and who are worthy of being remembered for all that liberty truly stands for. Like helping our fellow citizens in their time of need—not vilifying the poor while lining the pockets of the rich; or establishing just and equitable laws that protect every American—not just those who can afford to be protected.
If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many. Their triumphant legacy? Our food is unrecognizable, the air is poisonous, and our jobs are overseas. America is fat, polluted and broke. After a solemn decade of reflection upon the chicanery of those who promised to defend our freedom it is time to speak out on behalf of those who are asleep but desirous of truth and those who are awake but unsure of how to speak it.
To be clear, I am not defending the inaction of my generation—the so-called Gen Xers—merely proffering a reasoned explanation of our latent response. When the Baby Boomer generation was jolted from the post-WWII cocoon in 1963, they were young and restless. Their enemies were clear, defined and from within. Racism was overt and ugly. The draft was omnipresent. The Vietnam War was televised, and someone you knew was either there or going. When 9/11 came, our enemies were nebulous and far away. They attacked innocent people and our way of life, instilled fear in our hearts.
Because the enemy wasn’t from within, we had no choice but to heed the call of our leaders who assured us our path was righteous. Only it wasn’t. We began on the right foot by giving chase to our enemy, sealing them off and punishing their leaders. Then, with the wind of public sentiment at their backs, our leaders pulled off an imperialist coup in a blood-for-oil campaign, squandering trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of American lives and tens of thousands more Iraqis and Afghanis.
Today, the charlatans in government who call themselves leaders are turning Americans against one another. They have ratcheted up the partisan dialogue to such an extreme many Americans believe that unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending and a health care bill that doesn’t take effect until 2014 are to blame for the failing economy instead of two decade-long wars, historic tax breaks for wealthy Americans and the destruction of oversight in the financial markets. All of this after George W. Bush decided to liquidate the nation’s entire surplus upon taking office.
The same Baby Boomers who fought against this type of irresponsible government have borrowed and refined the playbook in order to protect themselves. Their fear of growing old and losing what they have accumulated, ill-gotten or otherwise, is so acute they are actually trying to tell us that poor people and funding for Sesame Street are the reasons Social Security and Medicare might not exist for us.
So, why have subsequent generations been unable to coalesce as Boomers did when revolution beckoned them? The answer to this is far simpler than the remedy. Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept.
Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?
America’s youngest citizens have a long and troubled road ahead littered with greed, incompetence and willful ignorance. It is on them to connect beyond the invisible walls of social media and discover the revolutionary spirit that defined the Boomers, but eluded the Xers, and overcome the sordid legacy we jointly bequeath to them. In doing so, they will truly honor the memory of the people who perished on 9/11, rise above those who would do us harm and piece together what remains of our lost decade.