I was 19 years old when I awoke on September 11, 2001, to the defining event of our era. Huddled with others around a screen, I watched live television broadcast images of planes flying into the World Trade Center. The mood of life – its color and tone – changed in an instant.
The importance of my school receded to the background; it was clear that the world had bigger questions to resolve. A month later, I watched the American invasion of Afghanistan on CNN. While the consensus in America seemed firmly behind military retribution, I met many people who expressed deep dissatisfaction with the invasion and realized that 9/11 was a tremendous opening that called humanity’s collective future into question. I didn’t know whether or not we should have invaded Afghanistan, or even who the Taliban were. In fact, like most young people at that time, I was blissfully ignorant of the world outside America. But I knew that life after 9/11 was rushing toward a conclusion that no one, young or old, could fully foresee. Nothing could be more exciting for the youthful spirit than to feel that the future was open to discussion, and I resolved to start an anti-war student organization. With this decision, I unknowingly joined a nation-wide movement that was building momentum toward a revolutionary moment.
We founded an organization at Swarthmore College called Why War? and adopted the motto “Question the war.” Our position was simple: 9/11 blindsided us, and we need time to reflect before we’ll know the proper response. However, when it became clear that we had to fight to have our voices heard, we turned to protest.
I remember the mood in 2003 when 38 million people worldwide gathered to voice their opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq. On the streets of New York, we felt that we had finally accomplished an organizational feat capable of altering the future. I watched as my friends broke through barricades, and I refused to move as police horses charged a blocked street, nearly trampling my head. The revolutionary momentum was at a peak – it felt like anything was possible, and that a new world was truly within our grasp. How could the world leaders stand against us when we were able to organize and synchronize protests on every continent in the world?
But our movement didn’t stop America from invading Iraq. The much-heralded “Day X,” a day of civil disobedience that was supposed to sweep the nation, fizzled out without noticeable achievements. Our failure to prevent the Iraq war dealt a blow to our confidence and our momentum dissipated.
Although the Bush administration was able to stem the tide briefly, it did nothing to weaken our vision – merely driving us underground and making our present resurgence more powerful. And in place of the naïve hopes of yesterday are the mature demands of today – voiced in whispers in our hopeful hearts, a dangerous conspiracy to outlast the regime, to maintain our youthful exuberance but temper it with wise consideration. We’ve seen enough in the seven long years since 9/11 to know that we were right to question the war and to trust that, inevitably, we can change the future.
Our momentum is growing. Bush is done, consumerism is collapsing and the patricians are dancing for plebeian votes. On the horizon appear presidential candidates who claim to be the source of our strength, but who are merely the symptom of the revolutionary thrust picking up again in America. We’re optimistic for the future and willing to be inspired, but too skeptical to respond to the rhetoric of “Hope” and “Change” with our whole hearts. So we let them do the work of encouraging demands for change, knowing full well that we will carry their promises further than they intend. What we hear is not what they’re saying. What we’ll accomplish is not what they envision. By playing for our votes, the establishment only helps us see the questions that are off limits and the positions that are deemed impossible.
In martial arts classes, timid students are taught to put their fists through solid wood by punching through the barrier. The target is not the wood, but the space behind the wood. Likewise, in revolutions, momentum is not meant to stop on a specific day, but to carry through to the other side. The barrier is the limitations of what has been declared possible. We’ll overcome it by imagining, demanding and achieving the impossible. In the weeks and months ahead, we will see America’s revolutionary momentum build and, with wise youthfulness and experienced imagination, we will learn to pierce the mental barrier that stands between the tired allegiance to this world and a passionate building of the next. Our target is not the election, but a time beyond the election, when our mental preparation will combine with our political momentum in a revolutionary moment that ushers in a storm of change.
_Micah M. White is a Bingington, New York-based writer and activist, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Media and Communications at the European Graduate School.