This past week we observed the thirteenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These attacks were directed at something much more significant than buildings or airplanes or even Americans.
From its inception, America has been a country born of ideas. It was these ideas that the attacks of September 11th were an assault upon. While the Founders gave voice to many of the ideas that some among us now treat as commonplace, they merit revisiting because they must be retaught to each generation of Americans if America is to remain an exceptional country.
On the evening of September 11th, when President Bush addressed the nation, he concluded his remarks by noting: “None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.” Many pundits and skeptics have since asked what precisely the President meant by freedom. George Orwell would have taken issue with this line too on grounds of vagueness, but I believe what the President meant on that dreadful evening was not very different from what a previous president meant by ‘liberty of conscience.’ As Thomas Jefferson explained in 1803, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or the case may, by change of circumstances, become their own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself.”
This was freedom, and hopefully it remains at the heart of everything that is good and just in our world. To believe that America has been unique, that it has proceeded along an exceptional trajectory, is not to take the jingoist’s pride in our country. It is, rather, to acknowledge that America’s place among the nations of the world is different and special. September 11th shocked us because for the first time in a very long time that vision of ourselves and our place in the world was threatened.
Most of us lived through the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 in which 168 people were killed and nearly 700 injured. While many of us can recall with perfect lucidity where we were when we heard the news and saw the video footage, the effect of the tragedy on that September morning six years later was very different. The day held the promise of ordinariness, but by 8:46am when Flight 11 crashed into floors 93-99 of the North Tower, we knew it was to be nothing of the kind. At 9:03, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, and 34 minutes later, Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Twenty-two minutes afterwards, the South Tower collapsed and four minutes after that, Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Twenty-five minutes later, with the world watching, the North Tower collapsed. In all, 2,977 people died not including the 19 hijackers. This included 343 New York City firefighters, 23 police officers, 37 Port Authority police officers, 15 EMTs, and 104 people who were later confirmed to have jumped from the towers to their deaths.
On another September day, this one in 1800, Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Benjamin Rush had written lines that would later be inscribed in the rotunda of his memorial in Washington, D.C. He wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Terror is a form of tyranny and terrorism is its handmaiden. Jefferson swore upon that day, and 201 years later, so did a new generation of Americans. Military enlistments increased dramatically, the mood of the country changed, and many of us realized the almost childish absurdity of a Fukuyama who had assured us that history had ended, and that those who were not yet like us in our values and beliefs about progress soon would be. Not since the Kellog-Briand Pact and Wilsonianism had such hubristic cosmopolitanism taken hold, and now the fingers of naïveté were pried lose as millions awoke to the fact that there were others who not only did not share our values, who not only did not want us to hold our values, but who would not be content to allow us our lives on account of our values. That day obliterated any fantasies that the rest of the world’s inhabitants all fundamentally thought alike, or that freedom of conscience was a mere abstraction fit only for academic debate. We became conscious of a world many of us knew only through books and films; one in which the pen might elaborate and articulate the principles we would stand for, but in which the work of the sword would be required to secure those ideas for ourselves and others.
We might want peace, but as Vegetius put it around 383AD, “Si vis pacem para bellum – Those who desire peace should prepare for war.” As our children come of age in a post-9/11 world, which sees the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban, where Aisha Mohammadzai has her nose and ears cut off by her father-in-law and husband for fleeing an abusive relationship, Daniel Pearl is beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2002, and as recently as a few days ago, Daniel Haines is decapitated by a member of ISIS, we must recognize that wishing for peace will not bring it about. The religious relics of others are not destroyed where there is a decent respect for the rights of a minority, and people do not feel entitled to visit horrific cruelties upon one another with impunity because their beliefs are self-evidently superior. The contemporary world does not even have the language to describe its own situation. The British prime minister, the political leader of a thoroughly secular country, can do no better than resort to the language of a century ago in decrying recent events as ‘pure evil.’ We can and must do better than this. As U.S. Air Force Colonel Walter Hitchcock put it, “Freedom is not free.” Over one-hundred years earlier, John Quincy Adams reflected on the price of peace for a free people and wrote the following in his notebook:
This hand, to tyrants ever sworn the foe,
for freedom only deals the deadly blow;
Then sheathes in calm repose the vengeful
For gentle peace in freedom’s hallowed shade.
One-million three-hundred and twenty-one thousand six-hundred and twenty-one American soldiers have given their lives in battles ranging from Lexington and Concord to places like Fallujah and Mosul. They have given their lives in defence of an idea not only for Americans, but for millions abroad since, as Jefferson noted, we do not know when the circumstances might change and we should find ourselves at the mercy of greater numbers or superior strength. That quintessentially American idea is that we are entitled to “certain unalienable rights” that no earthly power can absolve or circumvent.
When the attacks on September 11th occurred, Ridgeview was in its infancy, but even then Ridgeview took a peculiar interest in teaching the Founders, in talking about their ideas, concerns, and ambitions despite their seeming ‘archaic’ to some. Without this focus, and without a reverence for freedom, our children shall be doomed to lives in which genuine liberty is either never realized or never appreciated because it is neither understood nor defended. This past week we marked a solemn observance by doing what we do every day at Ridgeview, which is endeavoring to teach those too young to know the incredible price that has been paid for their inheritance so that eventually they too might deem it worth preserving.