Say what you will about selfies and hashtags, but the single most defining characteristic of the millennial generation is that we came of age during the war on terror. The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, are an anchor in our adolescence, firmly marking the loss of our collective innocence.

For the majority of our cognizant lives, we’ve known an America at war. Al Queda, the Taliban, and ISIS are our amorphous boogeymen while the Twin Towers, the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and so many more in between are memorialized in our yearbooks.

And so, as the terrorist attacks in both Beirut and Paris last week played out on our various screens, they felt both familiar and terrifying — like a recurring childhood nightmare we just can’t escape. There was a deja vu to it all. We’ve been here before.

As The Economist noted, “It is hard to know what getting used to terrorism means.”

A makeshift memorial in Prague, Czech Republic, after the Paris attacks.
A makeshift memorial in Prague, Czech Republic, after the Paris attacks. Bianca Dagheti/Flickr.com

For many of us millennials, it feels like the familiar rhythm of school shootings (another random and subversive plague on our comfort). We are all shocked. We are all outraged. We all change our profile pictures to show solidarity, we post about our thoughts and prayers for the victims, and then we continue scrolling through our feeds, hoping for a distraction to stop us from thinking about what will happen next.

In the absence of any real way to contribute or make an impact, social media has become how we process such atrocities. As Rurik Bradbury, the progenitor of a well-known parody Twitter account, @ProfJeffJarvis, told the Washington Post, this process can come across as endlessly shallow.

“The part that feels the most useless to me is people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other,” Bradbury wrote.

In terms of tangible results or solutions, the social media posturing is indeed useless. But as Megan Garber points out in The Atlantic, “The memes are all, in their way, an empathy button. They work to convert shock and sadness and solidarity into currency.”

And empathy as currency does serve a useful purpose. Millennials are often mocked for our touchy-feely, sensitive upbringings, but the result has been that we are a deeply caring, empathetic and civic minded generation.

 

In terms of tangible results or solutions, the social media posturing is indeed useless. But as Megan Garber points out in The Atlantic, “The memes are all, in their way, an empathy button. They work to convert shock and sadness and solidarity into currency.”

We are on par with the GI Generation in terms of our belief in collective action and our “let’s fix it” approach to the world’s problems. We were, after all, raised on the mantra of “If you see something, say something.”

This war on terror catchphrase is so ingrained in us, it has become an affirmation, permeating its way across any perceived wrongdoing or evil in the world. It compels us to speak up when we witness racial injustices on college campuses and to protest when we feel the effects of income inequality. It’s why a Yale professor’s advice to “look away” when presented with an offensive Halloween costume triggered such a hysterical response.

For better or worse, looking the other way is not how we were raised.

In the immediate aftermath of terrorism, no one can look away. With our hands tied, the most we can do is change a profile picture or post a prayer to show our solidarity with the victims while quietly acknowledging how easily such atrocities could have happened closer to home: a New York concert venue, say, or a San Francisco stadium — even a Waikiki restaurant.

It is the defining problem for our generation, a problem that promises to stick with us, like an intrusive and nagging cancer, popping up whenever we begin to feel comfortable again.

But our powers of empathy, our ability to reach into another’s heart and feel his pain as if it were our own are precisely what separates us from those who murder innocents at random. As the conversation now turns to war escalation, refusals of refugees and political footballs, holding onto and celebrating that distinction is more important than ever.

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