I have lived my entire life in the United States. I was born here, and I have every expectation that I will die here, be it sooner or later. I was raised to be patriotic; to love America, to cherish her founding principles and to view her as a solitary pillar of benevolence. While I have not fought in her wars, I respected my father for doing so, and thus respected my raise.
On September 12, 2001, I decorated my Mitsubishi with American flag decals I had purchased at 7-Eleven. I did this to honor the 19 people whom I had known as friends, as well as the other 2,958 souls who never made it home the night before. My sense of civic responsibility led me to the Red Cross station just outside Arlington, where the blood I sacrificed through my donation was replaced with star-spangled pride. I sat, white-knuckled, beside the window of a trailer serving as a makeshift collection center. The scrape of a needle forced by an uneducated hand barely registering while gazing upon the grey smoke still billowing across the highway.
I watched my television with delirious fervor as President Bush stood atop a pile of smoldering rubble with a megaphone in his hand. He said that he could hear me…that the whole world could hear me. And not just me; all of us. We weren’t fine, but we weren’t alone, and that was something. I did not cast my vote for George W. Bush…either time. But on that day, in that moment, he had nothing short of my full-throated support.
On the evening of the attacks, President Bush told the country that “our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.”
His words, and the way in which he spoke them, were intended not to inform, but rather confirm. The president spoke from the Oval Office, seated behind the Resolute Desk. And when he told our heartbroken nation that “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” resolute is exactly what he was.
On December 16, 2012, little more than a month after being elected to a second term, President Barack Obama traveled north from Washington D.C. to Newtown, Connecticut. This was not an early holiday getaway, nor was it a disposable road-trip to enjoy the view of Manhattan at Christmas from atop the George Washington Bridge. This trip had far more somber implications. President Obama was not delivering frankincense to a manger in Newtown. If that were his intention, he would have most certainly found there to be no room at the inn.
Early the previous day, a very disturbed young man murdered his 52-year-old mother inside their home by shooting her four times in the head. The young man then proceeded to drive himself to Sandy Hook Elementary School in his mother’s car. He arrived shortly after 9:35 a.m., armed with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, and ten 30-round magazines. The weapon had also belonged to his mother.
Dressed in dark colored clothing and wearing sunglasses, the young man shot his way through the school’s locked front door. Students and faculty were greeted by the sounds of gunshots permeating from the classroom speakers as the morning announcements were being made over the intercom.
The shooter, who was later described as “a very angry young man,” unleashed the full purity of his evil with the unadulterated and indiscriminate violence of a tsunami. He gunned down several faculty members before forcing his way into a first-grade classroom, and stalking the children like the unflappable boogeyman from a horror film. By the time this “very angry young man” sauntered off in search of more victims, two more faculty members and 15 children lay extinguished in an unholy mixture of guilty bullets and innocent blood.
The only one to survive the room was a six-year-old girl. She later told her mother, “Mommy, I’m okay, but all my friends are dead.”
By the time it was over, 28 people had lost their lives. This includes the “very angry young man’s” mother, six faculty members and 20 children between the ages of six and seven. The final body was that of the “very angry young man” himself. He ended his satanic pilgrimage with a self-inflicted bullet to the head.
President Bush had been in office just over seven-months when he made it clear that he could hear us. On December 16, 2012, some 11-years removed from the megaphone on a stage of twisted metal, it was time for us to hear President Obama. His words, though in possession of no healing properties, offered the promise of solidarity.
“Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation,” Obama said on that day. “I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease your heavy load, we will gladly bear. Newtown, you are not alone.”
Newtown wasn’t alone, and that was something.
Two men, two presidents with different ideas and ideologies, and at two different points in our nation’s history, told us that we can do better. And they were both right…we can do better. Not just for ourselves, but for our children. The biggest problem with young people these days is that they have only us to look up to, and our silence adds volume to those with bigger voices and smaller ideas.
Two-months more than 245 years ago, men far smarter than I penned a declaration that said “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But, these are not truths; they are ideals, and they are far from self-evident. Our own history has taught us that. However, this in no way lessens their value. These ideals carry with them a promise…the promise of what we can be.
I say these men were smarter because of all that they achieved, as well as set in motion; both within their lifetime, and for the centuries that followed. I don’t possess the competencies necessary to appreciate the scale of their accomplishments, much less duplicate them. So, absolutely smarter; but, were they better men than I am? That I cannot say. They were what they were…a product of their time. A time when a different set of scales were used to weigh the merit of a man’s character, and geographic prejudice was an excuse to assign value to the strength of a man’s back.
These men lived their lives in purgatory, dreaming in ambitious prelude to a glimmering future, while trying to blink away the atrocities of their past and present. They spoke as poets do…in transcendent soliloquy. And they scribed our formative documents as one may love letters to their grandchildren’s grandchildren. They preferred democracy to monarchy. They fought for freedom, but raged against anarchy. They feared God, but not the sword. They wanted equality for all men, and the right to inflict their will upon those whom they deemed to be anything less.
Were these great men who did bad things, or bad men who did great things? It damages neither our history nor our legacy to view these men through a truthful lens. They simply were what they were…a product of their time. Flawed men, imperfect men. They fought tyranny with terror, and engineered freedom with the bones of those whom they oppressed. But they are our history and they are our legacy. It is their actions which have afforded me the liberty to speak my opinion in this manner, and afforded you the liberty to disagree with me if you so choose.
Hindsight is a precious gift, and our most affable companion. It is how we learn to do better. It is how we learn to be better. To ignore that gift is to ignore the promise made two months more than 245-years ago.
Once upon a time, she with silent lips cried, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And came they did; the tired, the poor and the tempest-tost. Some sent, and some of their own volition, but all yearning to breathe free. They came from Cuba in rafts made of rotten boards. They came from Mexico, huddled masses in the backs of pick-up trucks. They came from Afghanistan, through Egypt, disguised in Russian clothing. They came from Uganda, having paid their fare with ears, toes and the blood of their loved ones. They came from Berlin to avoid a wall of concrete communism. And they came from Iraq to avoid the forced-rapings of their daughters by their sons.
For years they came…the wretched refuse. They sought sanctuary beneath the pillar of benevolence. But now when they come they find the lamplight extinguished and the golden door closed to them. In its place now stands a repainted iron curtain. Storied pomp, indeed.
In September of 2001, our president heard us. In December 2012, we heard our president. And now, in September 2021, everyone is shouting, but no one is listening. We aren’t fine. People are getting sick, and people are dying. And when they die, they die alone. Isn’t that something?
And we’re arguing about covering our mouths, and we’re arguing about vaccines.
“I have the right to do this,” and “I have the right to do that,” we say. “The government can’t take my rights! We have a Bill of Rights in this country!”
The fact that we, as Americans, believe the government affords us “God given rights” is a tragic misconception. “God given rights” cannot be taken from us by any governmental body, nor can they be provided to us by any entity other than the God whom we choose to believe in. We, as Americans, do not have rights. We have privileges. And anyone telling you any different is either fooling themselves, or trying to sell you something.
Anymore, it seems as though we can’t get through a single day without someone saying “the country is more divided than ever before.”
Frankly, that’s just not true. Our country has been polarized since its inception. We couldn’t agree on a system of government, or even where our capitol would be situated. As a matter of fact, since it was written, we’ve changed our own constitution 27 different times. Although I suppose those 27 changes were fairly insignificant. It was the minor things we disagreed on, like whether it was acceptable for us to own other human beings or the freedom to, you know, speak. Oh, and then there was that time we fought a civil war. And also, if memory serves, we’ve murdered a few of our own leaders along the way.
So no, I reject the premise that our country is more divided than ever. What we are experiencing is the logical progression of our society as it emerges from its infancy and intersects with the age of social media.
The genius of the United States is that it is a nation of perpetual incompletion. America’s driving principle is as simple as it is poignant: we can always be better.
We’re Americans, all of us. And it shouldn’t take a 9/11 or a Sandy Hook or a global pandemic to make us remember who we are. Yet here we are…desperately in need of that reminder.
We can be better. We have to be better. After all, the biggest problem with young people these days is that they have only us to look up to.
We have to be better because our kids are watching.