Designing history: The identity of the 21st century

Our primary focus in December of 1999 was Y2K. Would the computer systems handle the millennial change? Might we suffer from serious computer snafus? In the midst of the Y2K hype, we knew, though sometimes forgot, that the year 2000 was, in actuality, the last year of the 20th century and the second millennium, rather than the first year of the new millennium.

It was a year later that we officially welcomed the new millennial calendar, yet history tends to classify eras by defining events rather than by the actual numbers. As a result, one of my first thoughts on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was that the new century had now historically begun. The terrorism in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and the ongoing threats would define a new era. We had gone from the Cold War, through the demise of the USSR. We were now living in the “Era of Terror,” a time period that could easily dwarf the Cold War.

Although the Bush administration coined the term “War on Terror,” and certainly the rest of his administration focused on related issues, few of us want to envision the 21st century as the “Era of Terror.” May we be so bold as to define our times in a more positive way, focusing on the strength of our culture, rather than the threat of violent destruction?

The heroes over rural Pennsylvania on Flight 93 proclaimed among themselves and to the world, through the telephone call by Todd Beamer, “Let’s Roll.” With their courage they preserved significant life and capital in Washington. Their heroism was memorialized in at least seven songs released in the following three years, as well as Lisa Beamer’s 2003 book, “Let’s Roll: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage.”

On a much smaller scale, this spring we observed the same courage at Seattle Pacific University, a college associated with the Free Methodist Church. College student and security worker, Jon Meis, took decisive action to limit injury on his campus, when he pepper sprayed and tackled the assailant. This, again, represents the best of the human experience.

In our era of social media, we have new abilities to communicate quickly and rapidly at the grassroots level, about unfolding situations, enabling the citizenry to limit the damage by deranged and self-seeking members of our race. The benefits of social media were recently demonstrated in my home town, Grove City, Pa., when an adult male grabbed a child in the local Wal-Mart. The state police released surveillance images to the media shortly after the incident, and the images were quickly ubiquitous on social media. Within minutes, the police received tips that led to a timely arrest and restored calm to the local community.

On April 19, 2013, the FBI attempted to lockdown a 20-block area of Watertown, Mass., following the Boston Marathon bombings. In the end, however, it was not the FBI who discovered the whereabouts of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Rather, after the “shelter-in-place” advisory was lifted, a resident discovered clues on his own property. The accused terrorist was discovered through grassroots intelligence, not through the official governmental search.

These events demonstrate the strength of an informed, caring, courageous, and involved community. Yes, there are many risks in our lives and communities, some risks that we never imagined in the previous century. Nevertheless, though we cannot control the events of history and the decisions of terrorists, neither are we entirely powerless. There is strength at the grassroots level; there is strength in numbers, as long as we are united, using all tools at our disposal, to unite as a community, committed to protect our citizen freedoms.

On 9/11, the distinction between civilian and soldier changed. Some of us will be called to be civilian guards, protecting our society. Let’s choose to define the new century as the “Era of Unity and Community” rather than the “Era of Terror.” Let’s commit and promise to protect one another, and thereby protect our freedoms.

Gary L. Welton

Gary L. Welton

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.

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