Authors say Sept. 11 bears trademarks of past; Writers offered scenarios strikingly similar to Sept. 11 and its aftermath; several years ago

January 27, 2002 | By Victor Hull

A band of fanatically anti-American terrorists plans a devastating attack on New York City.

U.S. leaders talk of a global crisis. The nation unites, demanding the enemy’s total defeat to achieve a “just outcome,” regardless of the human and economic sacrifices required.

Sound familiar? Actually, it’s a scenario described a decade ago by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book “Generations.”

Six years later, in another book, “The Fourth Turning,” Strauss and Howe offered another possibility, of a global terrorist group blowing up an airliner and announcing that it possessed nuclear weapons. The nation responds by becoming more “martial,” sacrificing personal freedoms for increased security.

In both cases, Strauss and Howe were describing potential events that would spark “a new mood” in America, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. The new mood, they said, would be characterized by a strong public consensus, renewed trust in government and a decreased anxiety over the prospect of casualties in battle.

They had predicted that the transition, dubbed a “turning,” would occur shortly after the new millennium, ushering in the beginning of a roughly 20-year period of upheaval and change.

Under their theory of inevitable cycles of generations and history, America is due for another convulsive “winter,” similar to the ones that encompassed the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Great Depression/World War II years.

During this period, they said, there’s a potential for catastrophe, such as all-out nuclear war, and for great civic achievement, such as America’s ascension to superpower status after World War II.

One way or the other, America will be transformed in ways that seemed impossible just a short time ago, they said.

“It’s a time of risk and opportunity,” said Strauss. “Winter can kill you. But it can also energize you.”

Critics dismiss Strauss’ and Howe’s theory of history and predictions as “pseudoscience,” flaky New Age philosophy and a string of worthless generalizations.

But their writing is finding new resonance after Sept. 11. Sales of “The Fourth Turning” spiked, and Internet chat room visitors speculate over whether the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks fit the criteria of events the authors say presage the new era.

Jarring the country

For their part, Howe and Strauss aren’t ready to commit on whether Sept. 11 was the spark. It certainly has the potential, and at the least gives the country a foretaste of what a full-fledged turning will be like, they said.

“Right now, we don’t know,” said Strauss, who graduated from Harvard with degrees in economics, law and government. “It’s going to depend on how we respond to the next events. This was a very powerful event. But we may go back to business as usual, and wait a few years before we really snap.”

Timing is everything, Howe and Strauss argue. Shocking events in other eras, such as the terrorist attack on U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, created stirs, but didn’t jar the country from its path.

On the other hand, they noted, the nation’s reaction to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks has all the hallmarks of a “turning” event. Overwhelming public support for war. Acceptance of curbs on individual rights. Talk of an all-out confrontation against evil.

“I think what’s most instructive is the response of the country,” said Howe, who holds graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale. “That surprised some people as much as the event itself.”

An overnight mood shift is typical of the start of a crisis era in American history, Howe and Strauss contend. Colonists in 1770 didn’t expect a revolution, and in 1855, people weren’t anticipating that a bloody civil war was around the corner. In the Roaring ‘20s, no one anticipated a decade-long depression followed by world war.

But the Boston Tea Party, John Brown’s raid and Black Tuesday served to spark a swift and permanent change, they write in “The Fourth Turning.”

An 80-year cycle

Howe and Strauss are swimming against the tide in their view of history. Most academics see history as a straight-line progression, a steady stream of unique events.

But Howe and Strauss see a distinct pattern that repeats about every 80 years—roughly one lifespan.

Each cycle has four eras, or “turnings” that last about 20 years apiece. At the start of each turning, they contend, “people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation and the future.”

The cycles, they say, represent periods of growth, maturation, entropy and destruction.

These cycles, Howe and Strauss say, are driven by generations aging.

“History shapes young people, who mature into the parents, leaders and elders of later eras,” they write. “Every 20 years or so, as each generation enters a new phase of life, the social mood changes, producing a new turning.”

Each generation tries to make up for the mistakes of the past, they argue. For example, one generation “underprotects” children and another overprotects them. Attitudes toward religion, politics and other institutions are similarly affected.

That’s why Howe and Strauss argue that it doesn’t make sense to simply project a continuation of past trends to anticipate what the future will be like.

To find out what attitudes are likely in coming years, they say, don’t look back to the ‘80s, ‘70s or even the ‘60s. Check out the early 1930s. The 1920s were much like the 1990s, a period of prosperity mingled with cynicism that abruptly changed with the stock market crash of 1929.

Some of today’s news headlines seem to reinforce the views espoused by Howe and Strauss, including the widespread public support for limits on individual privacy in exchange for security, talk of national identity cards and tighter immigration rules.

Last month, an opinion piece in the New York Times discussed signs of a resurgent confidence in government.

“The same polls that have long documented disenchantment with them now show sharp spikes in trust in the presidency, federal agencies, even Congress,” wrote John D. Donahue, a teacher in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in the Times piece.

Seeking explanations

Historians such as the University of Florida’s Michael Gannon don’t give much credence to the idea of history cycles.

“Most historians today think in terms of the uniqueness of events, rather than similarities—a linear development of history,” said Gannon, who recently published a book on Pearl Harbor. “I don’t believe historians would generally assign the country to an automatic replay of history after such-and-such number of years.”

But it’s human nature to seek an explanation for events, to look for constants in human behavior and to make predictions, Gannon added.

Florida State University history professor Michael Creswell also disputed the conclusions reached by Howe and Strauss.

“It’s very deterministic. It overlooks the notion of sheer coincidence,” he said. “Particular events occur that are unique to that time.”

Other critics are more caustic, saying the predictions offered by Howe and Strauss are so broad that some of them are bound to come true.

In his review of “The Fourth Turning” for the New York Times, writer Michael Lind dismissed Strauss and Howe’s work as “pseudoscience.”

“Most of the authors’ predictions about the American future turn out to be as vague as those of fortune cookies,” Lind wrote.

But Strauss, cofounder and director of a political satire group called the Capitol Steps, said the authors aren’t trying to be “soothsayers.”

Howe said he’s confident of his and Strauss’ theory that “history shapes generations differently and generations shape history.”

“In the long term,” he said, “history does vindicate a theory or disprove it. I think our theory has held up pretty well.”

What’s important is how the country responds to the challenges it confronts and how the generations interact, Strauss said.

Even if Sept. 11 was the catalyst anticipated, it provides only a hint of what’s to come.

“We didn’t immediately go from the Boston Tea Party to independence,” Strauss said. “Our whole point is, are we going to handle it well? For now, to this point, we’ve done OK. But this is just the beginning.”