Beaten Down And Brought Up In The Face Of Terrorism, Climate Change And Guns, A Virus Seems Far Less Scary
I was a sophomore in high school when Dylan Kleboid and Eric Harris murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado. When I came into school on the morning of April 21, 1999, the day after the shootings, it was the topic of conversations in the hallways between the students. Suddely, there was an announcement. Each class would have to go to the auditorium that Friday for an assembly. Freshman at such and such a time, then Sophomores, then Juniors, followed by Seniors. We didn’t know what it was about, but the rumor mill was it had to do with Columbine.
It did. Our principal and deans assured us that despite what happened at Columbine, the school was safe, there were no imminent threats and we should proceed as normal. That was hard for a 16-year-old though. I spent the rest of high school plotting in my head what I would do in the event of a Columbine; questioning if the classroom doors were bulletproof, or how far a drop out of the windows were. I felt safer in classrooms on the bottom floor than I did in classrooms on the top floor. The thought of a mass shooting was forever in my mind, leading me to often zone out during class. It ended my era of “straight A’s.”
Just two and a half years after Columbine, another event shook the foundations of our lives. September 11th. I watched the attacks happen from the “comfort” of my home. I also experienced the fear and uncertainty of family being close to Ground Zero. (My dad was working a few blocks away and my mom was supposed to go shopping at the concourse mall that morning). For the next week, I refused to go back to school, for fear that I would never be able to come home again if there was another attack. My grades suffered and I sunk into a depression that took over two years (and a suicide attempt) before I was able to snap out of it.
Both those events had monumental effects on my life, but the one thing that happened after both, we were told to carry on. We were told to go to school, go to work, go shopping, ride the trains, don’t be afraid, and don’t expect us to change anything that are the root causes of these problems. Just live with it.
In 2016, we had a “mass shooter drill” in my office, after a string of mass shootings in office spaces across the country, and a number of death threats to myself and our office in general. During the drill, when we all told where to shelter and how to exit, I was told that my only option was to “shelter under my desk.” You see, from where my office was, there was no way to escape the office without being in the line of fire. I was basically told to hide under my desk and kiss my ass goodbye.
For weeks, I did not want to go to work and couldn’t focus on my job. I would lie in bed and cry, wondering if tomorrow was the day I would die in a mass shooting. I even left a note in my sock drawer at home expressing my fears and telling my parents I loved them, hoping they’d find it after my murder. On the day I quit my job, I sat in my car and sobbed. The anxiety of possibly dying of a bullet to the head while hiding under my desk was gone.
The truth was we were afraid. We were afraid of being blown up on airplanes or in the subway, or shot in our classrooms or while shopping in a mall, or at our workplaces. We were told though, to carry on. That these threats were not worth halting your life over. We were told to adjust to a “new normal.”
I’m old enough to remember a time before Columbine and 9/11. I’m 37 years-old, which means much of the younger generation, those who are being lambasted for ignoring COVID-19 health guidelines, are younger than me. They never knew a time before those life-changing events. They dealt with the same anxiety-riddled fears I did, but they had them starting younger. My generation and those younger than me have had enough “new normals” to last several lifetimes.
Compared to that, COVID-19 seems less scary to many in this generation. More than 99 percent of people who get infected survive and up to half have no symptoms at all, and that number is even larger the younger the patient is. The primary concerns beyond mortality and seriousness are long-term health effects that may arise from even a mild infection, but for many young people, that seems like a less overt and immediate threat. This is especially true considering many young people already feel pessimistic and cynical about their future anyway because of climate change and a lack of willingness to improve economic conditions. Why be so concerned about the long term health effects from COVID-19 when we’re already screwed health-wise due to climate change and lack of accessible healthcare?
Youth apathy toward COVID-19 is not just an American phenomenon; new epidemics in Japan, Hong Kong and Australia are also focused on young people. This is a worldwide, generation-wide problem, and dismissing it as just petty youth selfishness or a sense of feeling invincible is missing the larger issue. That is projection. It’s the attitude you might have had as a young person, but this generation has had to watch their fellow age group die in war, terrorism and at the hands of mass gunmen. They’ve watched them suffer health conditions with no way, usually financially, to get help. Trust me when I say this, young people don’t feel invincible, they just stopped caring. They don’t see a reason to care. Beaten down by years of borderline abusive treatment and negative reinforcement by their elders, and forced to face a world where bullets fly in their classrooms, increasingly deadly weather slam into their towns and the next war is just a Tweet away, they just don’t have the time and energy to be scared of a virus that the vast majority of their age group is surviving. This is especially true when you have people saying the virus will never go away. For people who have to live on this planet another five, six or seven decades, running from the virus seems fruitless. It will come for all of us soon, we can’t hide forever.
They’re telling you about COVID-19 exactly what you told them about other crises their entire adult lives – adapt or die.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a millennial in America, its that no one cares enough about young people enough to fundamentally change things and allow for a better future, even if young lives are threatened by the status quo. Young people have been taught that their lives have little value; that their opinions not only don’t matter, but they’re wrong, and dangerously so. They don’t care if you’re sad, they don’t care if you’re scared, they don’t care if you’re in need and they don’t care how you feel. No one is going to alter their lives to protect yours. You’re on your own and you have to adapt.
So why are you surprised that they are returning the favor? They’re carrying on and learning to live with it, just like you taught them.