The protesters were furious. Occupying the senator's office, they chanted antiwar slogans and demanded an immediate end to the war. The police moved in, warning protesters they would be arrested if they didn't disperse. Most left, but 11 activists were cuffed, charged with criminal trespass, and taken to jail.
This model for antiwar activism was perfected in the Vietnam era. Today it is employed to protest the Iraq war. Yet, in accounts of this recent protest in the office of Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R., Maine), one telling statistic stood out: the youngest protester arrested was 52, and most were in their 60s.
Where were the kids?
The answer provides insight into a key dynamic happening in the American public sphere. A new generation gap exists.
In a perfect inversion of the 1960s generation gap, today's is marked by angry, activist elders and a more quiescent youth. The elderly protesters have experienced lifetimes marked by repeated episodes of governmental malfeasance - from lies about the Vietnam War to the cover-ups of Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal. By calling upon memories of an energized populace rising against "the system," they are inspired to political action.
And many in their generation remain bewildered that today's kids don't seem to care.
The obvious culprits are the media and the education system. Kids have too many choices; by easily tuning out war news, they miss the civic engagement that created 1960s activism. They would rather vote for a contestant on American Idol than in a nonpresidential election cycle. The education system disappoints because social studies and history curricula fail to inspire action.
These arguments are demographically determined. The older generation cannot admit that its experience should not necessarily serve as the default for the successive generation. Just as many of the protesters undoubtedly scorned their elders during their youth, today's kids often view the older generation as being out of touch with their lives and experiences.
For the elders, 1968 is the year activism came of age. From the takeover of Columbia University to the riots in Chicago, a new vitality energized American politics. Finally, the voice of their generation was being heard. If you lived through 1968 - and, demographically speaking, the majority of readers of this column will have memories of that pivotal year - then you will never forget it. But 1968 was 38 years ago. For today's kids, that's ancient history.
Imagine going back in time and asking a 20-something in 1968 whether the events of 1930 were relevant to his or her situation. The response you would receive is obvious; yet, today we are as far away from 1968 as 1968 was from 1930.
There is plenty of youth activism today, but you need to know where to look. Much takes place at the local level, where young people are involved in campaigns for everything from marriage equality to the legalization of marijuana. Nationally, Hurricane Katrina resulted in tens of thousands spending vacation time helping Louisiana to rebuild. Others march regularly to support a woman's right to choose - and still others march to protect life. Some volunteer to serve in the military, enlisting for service they find less repugnant - and more admirable - than many of their elders.
America's youth are animated by life experiences that differ considerably from their elders. Their personal context is both more global and local. Threats to personal existence are no longer solely embodied by nation-states. Their personal vulnerability is impossible to ignore; with each airplane ride or news update, they are reminded of it. They watched nearly 3,000 die in direct attacks on New York City and Washington. They might not be able to identify Ho Chi Minh, but they know Osama bin Laden would kill them if given the opportunity.
The older generation must remember that history has no default setting. There is no "normal" in the human or national experience. Each generation must make sense of the complex variables informing its singular context, and every older generation fails to appreciate the process.
Today's youth face challenges unimaginable to their parents, just as their parents lived in a world that made little sense to their parents. But somehow every generation figures it out. The kids will be all right.
Michael Socolow is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine
© 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources.