Eric Tanenblatt: In Wake of Orlando, Answer the Call to Serve

Eric Tanenblatt

Friday, June 24th, 2016

What could a thousand points of light do for their country?

A community’s peace shattered, a nation left to mourn—processes so unremarkably routine today they’re almost perverse: the Orlando, Florida massacre this month jolted the whole country’s emotional quotient, but to what end? 

The violence in Orlando, already designated the nation’s deadliest mass shooting as others still cling to life, was set to a backdrop of increasing social ills—crime and incarceration, affordability of health care and housing, childhood hunger and high school dropout, the treatment of our veterans. 

Americans have lost confidence in virtually every institution of public life. But we cannot afford to lose faith in ourselves, because it’s within each of us that we’ll find the solutions to these persistent, if still solvable, problems.

It’s because we’re no longer active shareholders in civil society’s vitality that we’ve lost faith in it. Today, we have no shared commitment of service: fewer than one percent of all eligible citizens serve in the United States armed forces, a wartime historic low.

But today’s challenges, and the attitudes that enable them, aren’t all that different from those of our past, like when President John F. Kennedy urged his fellow countrymen in his first inaugural address to access our nation’s greatest natural resource to solve its greatest problems: its people.

“And so, my fellow Americans,” he said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Three decades and a political party apart, that same hopeful optimism found its way into the presidential nomination acceptance speech of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, who spoke of the immense capacity of American goodness.

“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good,” Bush said. “The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”

If this nation is to solve homelessness or hunger, the mental health crisis or crime, it won’t be through profligate government policy or bloated bureaucracy, but the grit and determination and patriotism of its people—the old ideas made new again. That means digging our heels in. That means serving, recognizing that service to one’s nation isn’t confined exclusively to the military.

Millennials, surveys show, are increasingly inclined to serve, even upwards of a year. Consider: in 2011, some 600,000 young people applied to serve in AmeriCorps, a federal program I advised as a board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service, though only 80,000 positions were available. Of them, only half were full time.

We ought to cultivate the Millennial wellspring of idealism, to help the next generation find common cause through national service.

This new expectation, a rite of passage to bind one citizen to the next, would do more than any heavy-handed government policy ever could to address that which ails us.

Proposals to that end already exist, but they lack buy in from broader civil society.

Under the aegis of the Aspen Institute, General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has offered one such plan, wherein a service year marketplace to marry volunteers and organizations in need would be created. The plan would deliberately foster cultural appreciation (and expectation) for service by creating a service year transcript as a mechanism to translate service to pathways to employment or further education.

It’s a tragic reality in which we all owe some responsibility when a mother and her child huddle for shared warmth in the street, or a young person with immense potential abandons their studies. So too with Orlando. But tragedy can become something more. It can become something positive, if only we allow it. 

Eric Tanenblatt is a leader of the Public Policy and Regulation practice at the global law firm Dentons.  He previously served in the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, acted as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, and served as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.