I suspect that most who graduate from the University struggle to contextualize their four-year experience — to mark time in a way that will connect their first day on campus to their last.
The seniors leaving in two weeks might not remember their first day, but they sure as hell remember their fifth.
Most recall exactly where they were that morning when they heard the news. Got out of the shower and found a roommate crying. Walked to class and found it empty. For me, it was a slow walk down a hallway in the Business School, interrupted by an image that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Every generation has a moment. Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy assassination. Ours came at 8:45 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning in September: “U.S. Attacked: Hijacked Jets Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon in Day of Terror.”
I remember running back to my dorm room in West Quad. I ran to avoid the stares of those ignorant to what had happened. I ran, because it seemed at the time the only alternative to crawling on my hands and knees.
We were told that the world had changed. We were told that America had changed. That day, in that time, a hope, a glimmer, a prayer for the future of America sparked in me a patriotism that I have never before and will likely never again experience. Few seniors could forget the first home football game following the attacks — the eerie quiet of over 100,000 people solemnly remembering those who had perished. For the first time in years, I had reason to sing the national anthem as I once had: loudly, proudly, reverently at the thought of a new America.
Soon thereafter, I stopped singing the national anthem and I stopped believing in a new America. It might have been the events of March 21, 2003, when warplanes and cruise missiles emblazoned with the flag of my nation butchered civilian and soldier alike in Baghdad. Or the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2004, when 11 states wrote into law the homophobia and intolerance of an ignorant, hateful majority. Or the images of U.S. servicemen and women, brutalizing Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib. Or just this Sunday, when Pfc. Steven F. Sirko became only the latest American boy to be swallowed up by the old myth of war: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and right to die for your country.
My reverence for this nation, choral or otherwise, is not based on the illusory tales of its past, but rather the reality of the present. Presently? This is not a new America, so much as it is the worst parts of the old America, magnified and embraced with renewed enthusiasm. The hate. The intolerance. The mob mentality. It’s the old meanness, repackaged for the 21st century as a war on a shapeless, sinister, inhuman enemy. A war on terror? If it were only that.
Looking back, my four years here is a story of a hope lost — an allegiance made temporary by the actions of my government in a pivotal hour. Where I once sang “The Star Spangled Banner” out of love, it is now the shame and humiliation for the sins of my country that have me silenced.
But I am no cynic. As I once believed in the greatness of America, I now believe in other things.
I believe in the greatness of men.
I believe not in the righteousness of a nation, but in the righteousness of humanity — regardless of border or belief.
I believe in unconditional pity for those in despair; unconditional charity for those in need.
I believe that there is right and wrong in this world, and I believe that this generation, my generation, has in front of it the same choice that has faced all those who came before us: Can we tell the difference?
I look forward to discovering how we answer that question.
Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.