I was in high school, preparing for college, when the U.S. government declared a “global war on terror[ism].” President George W. Bush described this as a “war to save civilization itself” from intolerance. Unlike terrorists, he said in November 2001, “we value education” and “the right to speak our minds,” and “we respect people of all faiths and welcome the free practice of religion.”
How has that worked out, from the vantage point of life inside the United States? Has “terror” been eradicated here in the “homeland,” more than twenty years (and $8 trillion) after that war began? Have we saved education, free expression, and the peaceful coexistence of all faiths?
Let’s talk about that from the perspective of American educators and students. Let’s talk about the experience of a generation growing up under the threat of school shootings and similar attacks on other public places, which are the face of terror in their time.
When I recall my time in college almost two decades ago, I remember scenes and moods.
The prickling of my damp skin when I stepped into air-conditioned buildings in August in the Piney Woods. The odd thrill of sneaking into classrooms late at night to watch classic movies on the projector screens while student security guards turned a blind eye. Basking in the love of my new friends as I walked back to my dorm through pouring rain, which seemed to keep coming down throughout that October. But also the loneliness and impotent anger I felt as an antiwar student at an evangelical Christian college in Texas during the early 2000s. Then the exhaustion and euphoria that hit me in the middle of each week around 3 a.m. during the misbegotten semester when all seven of my classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then, as looming storm clouds forced the outdoor ceremony into the basketball arena on the day I finally graduated, feeling as happy, sad, confident, and scared as I’ve ever been, then sensing catharsis as the rain started while our new local congressman, Louie Gohmert, gave our commencement address.
A few days ago, I learned about the deaths of two people who defined two of my summers during those years.