For Us in the Post-9/11 Generation, Criticizing America Is Our Patriotism | Opinion

It's been 20 years since two hijacked planes changed the United States as we know it. They brought the World Trade Center crumbling down and with it an America that saw itself as invulnerable.

I never knew that America. I was born in 2006, five years after 9/11. And because I didn't know that America, the response to 9/11 that it engendered in many of the adults around me—the view of America as utterly exceptional, the feeling that criticism of America was unpatriotic and should be discouraged—never made sense to me.

Because to many in my generation growing up in the shadow of 9/11 and—perhaps as consequentially—in the shadow of America's response to 9/11, criticizing our country is our patriotism.

Of course, I understand where the generations before us were coming from. Watching TV in horror that day, they witnessed an attack on our country that was an attack on every American. And when faced with all that fear, I can see that it made sense to focus on the good in America, to focus on rebuilding our strength.

So I understand why my generation, growing up in a world still reeling from 9/11 five years later, was brought up in a culture where if you weren't talking about how great and exceptional America was, you weren't a patriot. And I understand why our complaints and criticisms of America are often viewed as a lack of gratitude, as whining, as a moral failure.

But think about it from our point of view: We grew up in a world where the U.S. was always at war. Having never known an America before 9/11, we came of age in an America that invaded Iraq over Weapons of Mass Destruction; by the time we learned about them, everyone already knew they didn't exist. We came of age in an America that fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan that we always knew was a failure.

Somehow, this didn't dampen my patriotism, or that of many others in my generation; what it did was lead us to redefine patriotism.

Patriotism for us means loving our country enough to know when it isn't at its best, when it has the capacity to be better. For many of us of the Zoomer generation, calling a deeply flawed America exceptional is rubber stamping failure; it's accepting the fact that America can't step up. And it's our patriotism that doesn't allow such a thought to stand.

For my post 9/11 generation, criticism ispatriotism
Sidney High School students sit through class under a US flag in Sidney, Ohio, October 31, 2019. MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images

In portraying America as exceptional, our elders left us to wrestle with the fact that the U.S. just wasn't as good as we were told it was. And rather than papering over the problems, we are finding our voices and criticizing what we see. Because for us, the lesson of 9/11 is that loving something means criticizing it, and demanding that it live up to its potential.

That's why you will find us screaming our outrage where so much of our energies are spent—on social media; it's not from a lack of gratitude for the greatness of this country, but out of a belief in what it can one day be, how great it can become, if we are honest about what we need to do to get there.

Because here's the thing people don't understand: My generation loves the United States. Even many of us who are the most critical do—just as older generations loved us enough to believe we could grow and learn and improve to become better than we were before. That's the way you love your family; and that's the way we love our country. We just aren't afraid to let the whole country—even the whole world—know when it needs to do better.

Here is how many of my peers see things: America truly is an exceptional place. But it's not exceptional enough. And it's our love of our country that makes us push for more.

On this 9/11, I'm hoping you'll join me and choose to be a patriot by holding the U.S. to a higher standard. I'm hoping you'll see that what makes America great isn't simply being America, but that we are always getting better.

In memory of all those who lost their lives, let's be better than we were then, better than we are now. Let's make it so we can say America is exceptional and believe it.

Phoebe Schocket is a high school sophomore at Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo, Ohio.

The views in this article are the writer's own.