This story, about a teenager charged with tagging a 9/11 memorial mural in New York City, depressed the hell out of me. Not so much because there's a teenager out there clueless enough to think that tagging a memorial mural is a good idea, although that's depressing enough, but mostly because of a comment made by a firefighter who worked out of the same house as the firefighter commemorated on the mural. When interviewed by local cable outlet New York 1 before the tagger's arrest, he (correctly) surmised that the perpetrator was probably a "teenager," someone around nine or ten years old when the 9/11 attacks took place and therefore he probably had no idea what it was all really about.
That got me thinking about how much more aware I became between the ages of nine and seventeen, and that's when the abyss really opened up for me. For all intents and purposes, today's adolescents have come of age knowing nothing but post-9/11 America. Growing up in an age of anxiety is nothing new; I grew up during the height of the Cold War (and I've got the Nena songs on my iPod to prove it) and we actually had to watch and summarize The Day After as a school assignment. (Spoiler alert: Nuclear war sucks ass!) What bothers me is that so many things about post-9/11 America that have outraged many of us are simply the status quo for today's young people. The United States government has always had the ability to monitor your cell phone calls without a warrant. The government has always tracked the books you borrow from the library and the movies you rent from Blockbuster. The government has always been able to declare you an "enemy combatant" and hold you indefinitely without trial or access to counsel. There have always been extraordinary renditions. There has always been a Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay.
The United States has always tortured.
I guess I'm lucky, inasmuch as I grew up in the lull between J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO and today's Patriot Act. Those of you reading this who are old enough to have lived through both probably think I'm a bit naive, and it's a fair charge. COINTELPRO, however, was ultimately shut down after its excesses were exposed. Our elected leaders stepped in and did their jobs. The Patriot Act continues along its merry way and one of our major party's presidential candidates has declared that he sees nothing wrong with warrantless wiretapping.
This is why accountability matters, and why measures designed to hold our elected leaders accountable when they abuse their power must never be "off the table." What is it like to come of age in a country where rights and freedoms that our leaders claim to be sacrosanct are, in fact, anything but? How will today's young people react - with anger? fear? cynicism? docility?
I know which reaction I'm hoping for, but I have no idea which one we're going to get.