Home > Foreign Policy, Personal, Political culture > The First of May: A Turning Point?

The First of May: A Turning Point?

As I mentioned previously, the evening of May First is one that will be indelibly printed on the consciousness of a generation. The college students who witnessed the events of September 11th are emerging as the newest generation of leaders. The high schoolers that saw the massacre of thousands in New York are now becoming established in their chosen careers. And the middle schoolers who may have had to ask their parents why they were gripped with fear and anguish on that fateful day are now figuring out just what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Each of these groups begins this new chapter in their lives with one fact apparent: the mastermind behind those attacks is no more. So just what do we do with that?

Countless pundits and analysts (yours truly included) have pointed to Osama Bin Laden as the Hitler of our generation. Yet while these two figures share much in common, there is much to separate them as well–not the least of all having to do with the scale and witnessing of their respective atrocities. I am sorry if I offend, but Hitler is the far greater evil. He was a man who first co-opted a movement that fed off of the collective misery of an entire nation and shifted it into an ideology based on fanatical nationalism and racial supremacy. He used the movement to chip away at the democratic institutions of a nation to first build it up and then destroy it through his own prejudices and desires. He molded public opinion in his own image, to the point where an entire nation, some knowingly, some on the edges, participated in a slow but massive execution targeted at all who did not meet the image their leader envisioned for this monster he had created. An entire religion was targeted and nearly decimated through his machinations. The worst of all was that those who were called to defeat this beast were mostly not even aware of its scale until it was defeated–we can simply not process what it meant to be a young army private witnessing the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, was undoubtedly a worshiper of death and destruction as well. He, however, was never able to manipulate an entire people into following. His was a ragtag band of “true believers” whose dedication to the principles of Islamism, though appealing to many living in third world conditions, just never caught fire as a mass movement because, frankly, it was unclear just what that would entail. Even the Taliban, which was the only government that came close, and even they never had complete control of the territory of Afghanistan. The nation was bereft with fighting between the Taliban and two former enemies that formed the Northern Alliance. Even today Afghanistan has only a barely functional government. Amidst all this chaos, however, stood a figure calling for the destruction of all that did not see the world as he did. It was never really clear what a world controlled by Bin Laden would look like–the important part was destroying all that did not meet his vision of Allah, which alternately meant Communism and the West. It is indisputable, however, that Osama was able to carry out countless acts of terror using those few fanatics that he could reach.

This, perhaps, is the key difference. Hitler was engaged in destruction on a huge scale mostly out of the site of US eyes. Yes, he was destroying all who did not meet his definition of perfection, but he was also engaged in a war at the same time that diverted our eyes from his true intent. Even in the midst of full scale action against him, he was able to slaughter millions. It was only later that we understood the true scale of this systematic destruction. Bin Laden’s modus operandi, however, was to bring death and destruction straight to the enemy. We’ll never know if he even came close to having the capabilities to kill hundreds of thousands in a single stroke. His masterwork, however, was killing thousands right before our eyes. Although we may not have comprehended it at the moment, the scale of that amount of collective death at one time, when we watched the towers collapsed, we witnessed the simultaneous extinguishing of thousands of individuals lives. In some parts of the country it was impossible to find someone who was not touched personally by those deaths, but even in remote areas of this large nation, we witnessed it. Together. In that way, the actions of Osama Bin Laden created a much more palpable fear, sadness, and anger than we had experienced following the revelations of Hitler’s Holocaust. It was a collective moment for my generation.

So with that in mind, you may understand why I don’t view this quite as others do, as “our” VJ Day. The comparisons are inevitable, what with the spontaneous outpourings of relief and yes, even though some felt uncomfortable with it, joy that this singular face was destroyed. The dissimilarities, though, run deeper. First and foremost, the war is not over. In fact, we don’t really know what “over” means in this case. We’ve declared War on Terror–just what does that mean? Does that mean this moment? Or does that mean continuing the struggle until such ragtag groups are now longer able to commit mass acts of murder? Or does it mean instituting democracy all over the world, naysayers be damned? We don’t really know at this point. So we can’t say “this is it,” other than the end of a man so consumed by hatred and rage that he used his own wife as a shield so that he may somehow live to continue his horrible assault against the rest of humanity.

There is another issue, though, with comparisons to V-J Day: sacrifice. Yes, we witnessed it together. Yes, we lost classmates and dear friends both on 9/11 and during the wars that followed. Yet our generation simply did not see the sort of seismic shift that the Greatest Generation did. In communications, perhaps, but that was not borne directly out of the war effort. No, they saw first rationing, changes in the acceptability of women holding “men’s” jobs, a full scale military mobilization of the youth populace. Our military has been all volunteer since Vietnam, and we just did not see the sacrifice from all classes and races that we saw during World War Two. Some may call me hypocritical on that point–I’ll take it. I flirted with military service in the summer of 2006, but shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which has currently rendered me ineligible for service. Yet I could have made the sacrifice before, and I didn’t, while supporting the war in Iraq, a conflict that I now have far more ambiguous feelings towards. I’m going to have to live with that. And millions of others will too.

It’s difficult to say, though, what a full scale draft may have meant to this particular conflict, though. Again, we are fighting an asymmetrical enemy that has absolutely no regard for human life except those willing to die for their cause. My point is that our generation has now reached a turning point in our lives–a figure that embraced our greatest shared nightmare is gone. Where do we go from here?

My hope is twofold. One, that there is a genuine renewal of respect for public service. By this I do not mean simply the military–this includes firefighting, law enforcement of all kinds, and yes, even holding public office. In my most bitter moments I often opined that if our grandparents were the greatest generation, we may be the worstest generation. So horribly apathetic and absorbed with ourselves that we could not even be bothered to recognize that worstest is not the opposite of greatest, and heck not even a word. Well, to us I suppose, and that’s the point: we chose our own songs from the collective work of individuals. We wrote our own knowledge with wikipedia. We made ourselves the biggest story with social media. Too often, it all seemed to be about us, or even just me. But Sunday night gave the first hint of a turnaround. Well, perhaps 2008 did, with record voter turnout, but even then, that seemed to be about personality. Sunday night, though, the same tools we often used to talk about ourselves turned the spotlight onto our collective experience. He was gone. So what are we going to do with that feeling of relief?

I say chase it. While the nation breathes a sigh of collective relief, recall that a section of this nation has suffered severe devestation at the hands of nature, perhaps the one thing we will NEVER control fully. Entire towns have been blown off the map. This should give us pause. Things happen. Destruction takes place, human or not. We need leaders. Will we stand up and be that guiding force? I certainly hope so, and I think our nation can see a tremendous change if that occurs.

My second hope is perhaps one a bit more grounded in my personal beliefs. As I mentioned throughout what has transmogrified from a blog post to an article, I view Bin Laden as a singular individual that was able to recruit a small band to fight to destroy all the saw as “evil.” It is may hope in seeing this play out, where someone stands against progress, fairness, and democracy and does all in their power to destroy it, in his case by undermining the very sort of innocence that these institutions sometimes foster, that we recognize that liberty is never more than one generation from distinction. It is perhaps fitting that he died one the first of May. Not only was in the day after Hitler, but it was also formerly a major holiday in the Soviet Union, where the powers that be paraded about the machinery that they used to paralyze the world in fear and subjugate half of two continents. Yet eventually, that threat too was removed from the face of the earth.

There’s a lesson here: We must always be vigilant in defending liberty and democracy, whether that comes from a group of individuals who are able to enslave an entire nation through desperation, or whether that threat comes from an individual who will back its destruction however he can. Above all else, though, we must be so vigilant as to never allow our actions to undermine those principles that we hold so dear not just for ourselves but for the whole of humanity.

I could write more, but I’m finally at peace with my thoughts. I think I’ve put to digital ink what I needed to, and so now I simply leave you to ponder your own next move.

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