The National 9/11 Flag is unfurled during a ceremony on...

The National 9/11 Flag is unfurled during a ceremony on the Memorial plaza marking the public opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Credit: Charles Eckert

What a shock it was to learn that Douglas McAuthur McCain, a Midwestern guy who rooted for the Chicago Bulls, was killed while fighting for the Islamic State group against Syrian rebels. Fighting for a U.S. enemy.

As an American, I can't imagine why anyone would join the Islamic State group. After all, ours is the country into which tens of thousands of underage refugees from Central America are pouring. They want to be as free and prosperous as we are.

But McCain didn't.

So, we look for reasons. He was disaffected, dropped out of high school, got in trouble for petty crimes. He was African-American and felt second class. He had no job. He was recruited by militants in a mosque or social media.

What a further shock, then, to realize that Douglas McAuthur McCain isn't alone. Not one American jihadi, but one of more than 100. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters last week he believes that's how many young Americans are fighting for the barbarous killers we know as the Islamic State group.

How did this happen? How did 100 able-bodied people with citizenship in the world's greatest country find its enemy more alluring?

One answer is that we are doing an abysmal job of explaining to our rising generations what it is we stand for. We seem to be failing to win hearts and minds -- right here on our own soil.

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At other points in our history, we cared about communicating to young people that they mattered. In 1935, when an estimated 3 million young Americans were unemployed, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, "I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary."

She conceived of a two-year volunteer program, the National Youth Administration, that created work-study programs and part-time construction and repair jobs for women and men ages 16 to 25. It ran during the bleak economic years from 1935 to 1939. Back then, U.S. leaders were worried about the lure of communism. Now, it's jihad.

At other times, we've communicated American values through programs like the GI Bill, the Peace Corps and Teach for America.

But how can we create a vision of what America means -- this vast, inclusive land founded on ideals -- when we're so divided that Washington can't make progress on our most pressing problems?

And if our youth are so disillusioned that we can't keep 100 of them from joining the most barbaric force on the planet, how do we keep them from joining gangs or taking drugs?

Rare voices, like that of artist Rob Goldman of Huntington, are breaking through. His "I Matter" project gives high school kids an opportunity to talk about what they bring to the world. Their photos and statements are on display at the Huntington Public Library, and Commack has recently chosen to launch an "I Matter" project. Goldman says others have expressed interest in expanding the program nationally. It sprung from what he sees as the catalyst for teenage drug use: Kids don't see that they are necessary.

Young people need meaning and purpose, and it's never been more crucial for us to acknowledge that. Have a conversation, ask them about themselves, share your passions with them. That's one way we can show what America means and why it's important: this original experiment in valuing people for their minds and character, this meritocracy.

Without that, marking our triumph over evil on this anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks will mean less than nothing. Without the hearts and minds of the next generation, we have nothing.

Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV Credit: Newsday

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