The 2011-12 academic year is a momentous one for its class of seniors. What is momentous for others, for the nation at large? The ongoing recovery from the financial crisis, a topic addressed in greater detail separately by our staff today? The related Eurozone crisis? The beginning of the 2012 general election, with the carnival of the Republican primary and the growing centrality of social issues in the clash between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney?
Looking back further to the start of the year—the fall semester—one issue looms inevitably large, both for the United States and for today’s generation of young people. This was, of course, the anniversary marking one decade since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
With the events of September 11 now more than a decade behind us, it seems at times as if the wound has scarcely healed. The event itself was a tragedy beyond words, but in retrospect, perhaps it was also a portent of things to come. Indeed, in the decade since September 11, the United States has stumbled from one frustrating war to another and seen its once-robust economy nearly brought to its knees, bringing pain and suffering to millions across the country.
In many ways, the post-9/11 world has also separated the decade-long post-Soviet honeymoon from a far more fraught and challenging time for the United States. The days of unthreatened American hegemony had come to an end. Before the end of this decade, the Chinese economy will very likely become the world’s largest. For all the political rhetoric, there is a very real fear that America’s education system is falling behind; that American workers are no longer the world’s best; that American exceptionalism is merely an illusion; that America will never again regain the place in the world it once occupied.
The Class of 2012 leaves the rather protective sphere of Harvard for this uncertain world. Often, our time at Harvard leaves us in a state of virtual insularity, blinding us to the uncertainty of the outside world. Nevertheless our lives after September 11 have been affected by many consequences, tangible and intangible, that have modified our activities and even changed the way we view our liberties. We are reminded of this occasionally: We have grown familiar with the Department of Homeland Security as we submit to scrutiny at Logan Airport. Likewise, the Patriot Act has permitted an unprecedented level of government surveillance. Yet as citizens, we would do well not to fall into complacence and to guard our civil liberties jealously, as rights rather than privileges.
On another level, pernicious scars of xenophobia and intolerance are also a legacy of September 11. These attitudes are inevitable reactions to a terrorist attack executed by Islamic extremists. However, as the recent popularity of the Tea Party and its inflammatory rhetoric shows, they threaten to take hold in the wider national psyche. This is something we must continue to be wary of.
From a more global perspective, the generation of Harvard seniors that graduates this week represents the first college class to have spent more time in the shadow of September 11 than outside of it. They have come of age in an era marked not by American power, but by its limitations; they have witnessed the horror of Abu Ghraib, the disappointment of Guantanamo, and the endless misery in Afghanistan. They take this knowledge with them into the world, and they must choose what to do with it. Some may cynically choose to view our times as reflective of the shortcomings of human nature. Yet some—and, let us hope, most—will view the shortcomings of these days as a call to action for a better, more humane future.
Thankfully, there are already signs that point to such a future. Osama bin Laden’s death last year, at the hands of Navy SEALs, gave the nation an opportunity to lay a ghost to rest. As the spontaneous celebrations that took place in Harvard Yard, outside the White House, and across the country demonstrated, the wound left in the American psyche by 9/11 had far from healed. It was notable that many of those who turned out were young people, in keeping with the exceptional influence of 9/11 on our generation.
Hopefully, as we argued at the time, bin Laden’s death—now more than a year passed—provides an opportunity for much-needed renewal and a chance to move on from 9/11. From his lonely grave somewhere at sea, he no longer haunts our collective consciousness. His absence has been complimented by a new presence in the New York skyline—that of the new World Trade Center, which just last month became the tallest building in the city. Its presence will not erase the memory of the Twin Towers that came before it, but Daniel Libeskind’s creation has filled a gaping physical hole in the city’s heart and will continue to impress as it is completed. With time, perhaps the gash in the nation’s soul will also come to heal.
As the reconstruction continues, it is clear that America cannot recapture the past. Perhaps its days as the world’s only superpower will soon be over, but the country still has much to give to the rest of the world. Let us remember and honor the achievements of the past and recognize and learn from the mistakes of the present as we look toward the future. Times will certainly be different. But whether they are better—a reemergence, a restoration, even a redemption—depends on us and our ability to emerge from the shadow of 9/11 into a brighter world.