|Remembering Patriot Day|
By Troy Senik
Friday, September 11 2009
Not to stoke the fires for those of you lamenting being back in your office, but this should have been a three-day workweek.
On Monday, millions of Americans got the day off to commemorate Labor Day – a holiday whose inauspicious origins are rooted in organized labor’s mob violence and vandalism in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Thankfully – with most Americans realizing that many union members don’t need a holiday in order to avoid work – the occasion is now little more than a benign send-off to summer. Friday, however, represents a far more important (and unfortunately ignored) holiday: Patriot Day.
Patriot Day was inaugurated in the wake of what can soberly be described as the most consequential date of the young 21st Century: September 11, 2001. From that day forward, it has been commonplace to compare 9/11 to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. But that comparison subtracts far more than it adds to our intellectual clarity.
Pearl Harbor, while a surprise attack perpetrated by a ruthless enemy of the United States, was still an ambush bounded by conventional wartime sensibilities. The Empire of Japan attacked a U.S. Naval Base in order to weaken the Pacific Fleet’s ability to deter or defeat Japanese expansionism in Southeast Asia.
Given that World War II was a preexisting reality; that Hawaii was still nearly two decades away from statehood, and that Pearl Harbor is located approximately 2,500 miles from the continental United States – the shock of that attack was different in nature, if not severity, to that of 9/11.
This generation needs to commemorate its watershed moment – but not just as an excuse for another day off. In fact, if it were to be as blithely severed from its original intent as Labor Day, it would be better not to recognize it at all. Rather, September 11 should be a day to put aside the combination of denial and accommodation that has come to increasingly define Americans’ psychological approach to terrorism in recent years.
Citizens should re-watch the footage of the jets slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the smoke billowing from the Pentagon. They should view “United 93,” the harrowing – because true – account of the American heroes who thwarted terrorists over a Pennsylvania field rather than allowing a mortal blow to either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. And, as nearly as possible, they should try to place themselves back in the context of that day – when the probability of the next attack was weighed in minutes rather than years. What wouldn’t you have done for your country on September 11, 2001?
I rarely delve into autobiography in this forum, but this is a rare occasion that necessitates it. I was a college freshman in Nashville, Tennessee, on the day the attacks occurred. Only three weeks earlier, I had experienced the epochal shift of university life, leaving my home and family in Southern California behind for the first time. The insecurity of that transition paled in comparison to the epiphany of that autumn morning: that the most secure places in the world could not defend against the confluence of hatred and martyrdom.
I had come to university planning to study music. But from that morning forward, I knew that defending the cause of freedom would be far more important than exploring its effects. So I studied political science. And seven years to the day of those attacks, I stood on the South Lawn of the White House commemorating that solemn anniversary with the man who led the nation through it, President George W. Bush, who I served as a speechwriter. I wish I could say that meteoric rise owes to talent. But it doesn’t. I simply served a cause so important that it justified exertions on a scale that brought me to the White House’s attention. And that charge was rooted in the events of September 11.
I am keenly aware that the traumas of that day are reserved for what Lincoln would call “we, the living.” My future grandchildren’s knowledge of 9/11 will almost certainly be gleaned from textbook prose as bloodless as that which once introduced me to Pearl Harbor. And in a sense, that is as it should be. No generation can survive under the collective weight of its forebears’ traumas.
But for those of us who saw the ashen faces of friends who had loved ones flying that day, who watched the candlelight vigils, and who heard previously timid young men call recruiters, we must remember – but we also must learn. On this eighth anniversary, too many Americans have conflated the invisibility of evil with its absence. Less than a decade after the attacks, our elites ignore the war in Iraq, abhor the war in Afghanistan, and find less of a threat to American values in radical Islam than they do in the break room at the CIA.
If we reawaken – even only for a day – to the horror of 9/11, we will be better off for it. If we think about what it means in the freest, safest country on earth for men to choose between leaping 80 stories to their death or being incinerated in a burning building; for women to use an airplane phone to call a husband they will never see again, or for children to be told that a parent is never coming home from the firehouse; then we will rediscover the righteous rage of September 12.
We will gird our loins once more. And we will speak of radical Islam to future generations only in the past tense.
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