Looking back, I think I made a mistake. In March, I argued here in The Atlantic that the pandemic would make people content with a return to normalcy. Perhaps they would even long for it. Yet although the novel coronavirus has receded into the background—not quite forgotten, but relegated to the ambient mood music of our new lives—the psychic energies that were gathering for months have clearly found expression in both new anger, which can be good when it leads to reforms long overdue, and new resentments, which probably aren’t quite as good.
Politics—particularly when concerning matters of life and death—always seems to loom large in the moment when you suspect you are participating in history. That moment occurred for me, although it would extend to months and then years, nearly two decades ago, when I started my freshman year in college. I was away from home for the first time, trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, which was difficult enough. But then, just two weeks in, the September 11 attacks happened. I saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon from my dorm. It was a double tragedy for me—first as an American, but also as a Muslim seeing people committing such acts of horror in my name. To say that my life really was never the same again wouldn’t be an exaggeration. My career trajectory changed. I decided to study Islamists and Islam, when I could recall, just months prior, a dishonorable if fleeting desire to make a lot of money.
As crazy and destructive as those events were—the debacle of the Iraq War followed 9/11 rather quickly—we had the advantage of not having social media. I didn’t watch television, so my primary access to information was the homepage of The New York Times and a few blogs that were starting to sprout up then—as well as guest lectures, anti-war campus teach-ins, and maybe also the odd, occasional chain email indulging in a conspiracy or two. Both earnest and righteous, we were probably insufferable. No one, at least not right away, told me that reading Noam Chomsky and thinking he was something akin to a prophet was a rite of passage, and that it was likely to pass in time.
What was true then is true now: Human motivation has a darkness at its core. Being outraged feels good, having an enemy feels better, and having a scapegoat always helps. All three of these things are aided considerably by the democratization of information—when, as the author Peter Pomerantsev put it, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”
So this time around, everything will be different, and it will also be the same. This year’s high-school and college graduates are being propelled into a world that is frightening in its uncertainty. In economic terms, this is a summer that could scar them for life. In political terms, they will find themselves living in a more polarized media landscape, and social circles that are self-segregating, if not necessarily by race, then by ideology. The liberal sensibilities that, for all their faults, saw freewheeling and uncomfortable debate as both right and necessary seem stodgy and antiquated today. Safety and security are preferable now, but to seek them doesn’t mean to find them.