Roughly 35 years have passed since the bombing of Sterling Hall killed physicist Robert Fassnacht. As a turbulent chapter in Madison history reached its sobering climax, skepticism toward youth activism began to develop. In hindsight, it seems simple to categorize the conspirators of the Sterling Hall bombing as little more than products of the tumultuous ’60s. However, it would be naíve to think people like Karl Armstrong, David Fine, Leo Burt and other members of Madison’s storied counterculture could not exist today. While such radicals certainly found a window of opportunity amid the general turbulence of the period, they likely would not have been vaulted to their stature in the anti-war movement had it not been for throngs of peaceful student activists.
No prominent youth movement exists today through which such extremists could gain notoriety. As student apathy reaches an all-time high during a period of great conflict for the United States, the absence of a youth culture encouraging violent ideologues like Mr. Armstrong or Mr. Fine is not particularly upsetting. What is truly saddening is the absence of youth activism altogether and the indifference of an entire generation toward its government’s affairs.
Given Madison’s history, the notion of an idle student body at the University of Wisconsin during a period of U.S. armed conflict — conflict that many consider unjust — seems unthinkable. Strangely enough, this Midwestern college town lacks the substance to match its reputation as a liberal haven. Where lies the explanation for the drastically different responses offered by this generation and by their parents’ generation when faced with morally troubling U.S. policy?
In a sense, young people today have changed politics. Youths can be partly credited for the Internet revolutionizing politics, as was evident in the last election cycle. However, despite the new outlet for political activity, it would be foolish to think membership in a few Thefacebook.com groups constitutes participation in a democracy.
Perhaps the apathy of young people today regarding U.S. policy is due to the world we live in rather than a diminished social conscience. It is easy to romanticize about Vietnam-era political activism as the result of a generation full of concerned moralists, but in reality, a much more selfish cause — the threat of conscription — caused that generation to enter politics.
Politicians have masterminded the subtraction of youth activists from the political equation since the Vietnam War. The military draft is a prospect that scares students and hawkish politicians alike. By keeping the U.S. military an all-volunteer force, the government has neutralized an effective political faction.
While the Vietnam generation may have been driven to activism out of personal fear, this generation can cut its political teeth on a basis of moral obligation. Young activists have shown flashes of brilliance at times and seem to have the potential to take their rightful places. Although no eminent threat exists to the average young person, today’s U.S. policy will determine the future for this generation. And while not many people would like to see another Karl Armstrong or David Fine, the world is waiting for some political signs of life from today’s youth.
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.