As we all know, this past month marked 20 years since the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, in which nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children were murdered by terrorists in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. It is only thanks to the heroism of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, as well as the countless first responders, that more were not lost and that our government was not thrown into perhaps irrevocable crisis, given the possibility of that fourth plane crashing into the Capitol or the White House.
I was a little more than a year old on that day, at a doctor’s office just outside of Boston, when the towers collapsed. It is harrowing to think, knowing what happened, about scheduling an appointment for “the 11th” 20 years ago, believing that day to be no different from any other. I do not remember being there, but I know that I was there. I was not aware of what was happening, or at least do not remember being aware of what was happening, but I know that it happened. My lack of individual memory notwithstanding, I am an American, and so that day is forever seared in my memory as a part of our national memory.
Although I am one of many who at times sees the past through a rosy window, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to think of how our country has changed over the course of 20 years and to think of recent events and say “this is not the America I grew up in.” I am in my early twenties, and I have lived nearly my whole life in the shadow of Sep. 11. That is the America that I grew up in (in fact I am still growing up, as are we all. We are never too old.) Nevertheless, I get a sense that in recent years we have lost the civic virtue that makes us different from any other nation on earth, and therefore we have lost sight of the common bond that we all share as Americans. Sep. 11 made us remember who we were, it made us take our lives and those of our loved ones more seriously. Today, I would hope that sooner, rather than later, we can all take part in a revival, not of any scriptural religion, but of the civil one that defines our country—the republican spirit (with a small r of course). We must remember that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor,” and, I might add, a republican vigor.
Accordingly, we must remember that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. On that day 20 years ago, Al-Qaeda did not represent any religion. Instead, Al-Qaeda represented a force that has manifested itself for as long as our country has existed, but also for as long as any free people have existed. We must guard against that force, for it is ever present. As we unified in the aftermath of Sep. 11, Osama Bin Laden, and the force he represents, failed, at least in that way. But that force, that side of human nature, still exists. In the words of George Washington, we must “express [our] utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”
With that in mind, we must remember just how precious life and freedom are, how dear they are to us. A few weeks ago, when visiting the site of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, we heard a ranger dressed in Union Army garb playing the character of a soldier in the Army of the James, talking about his experiences and the magnanimity displayed by Lincoln and Grant towards the Confederacy. As he concluded his talk, the ranger/soldier urged us to reflect, and “to be grateful to live and to wake up every day in a country that is free.” Today, I urge us all to heed that counsel.
But in spite of the concern I express for the direction of our country and the remedies I propose, I believe it is just as essential to remember the words of our national anthem. In the rubble of Ground Zero twenty years ago, and at the time it was written, “our flag was still there.” Today, in spite of everything, those words hold true.
Our flag, and the republic for which it stands, is still there.