Enduring Values

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Six years ago today, as I was driving my youngest brother to Reagan National Airport, the drivers were honking at each other, cutting each other off in traffic, and using bad language as they negotiated the overcrowded roadways around the nation’s capital.

In other words, they were doing what many Americans do on a bustling Monday, and not just in D.C. “It’s September 12,” my brother observed wryly. “Things are back to normal.”

It was the day after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, so the impatience of my fellow commuters felt incongruous. Instead of expressing disappointment, however, I quipped, “Well, if you can’t give another driver your middle finger during rush hour, the terrorists win.”

The day before, the president of the United States had taken a different tack. After visiting all three memorial sites where the planes went down, Barack Obama wasn’t in an irreverent mood. Quite the opposite. He began his talk at the Kennedy Center by quoting a verse from the 30th Psalm. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” he intoned, adding that 10 years earlier, America experienced one of her darkest nights.

“In the decade since, much has changed for Americans,” the president added. “We’ve known war and recession, passionate debates and political divides. We can never get back the lives that were lost on that day, or the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the wars that followed.”

He continued: “And yet today, it is worth remembering what has not changed. Our character as a nation has not changed. Our faith — in God and each other — that has not changed. Our belief in America, born of a timeless ideal that men and women should govern themselves; that all people are created equal, and deserve the same freedom to determine their own destiny: that belief, through tests and trials, has only been strengthened.”

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were historic storms that will strain the resources of this country, and test the resourcefulness of people from the island of St. John to Houston, Texas. We’ve been up to such challenges before, but doing it right means pulling together, and that entails using muscles we haven’t exercised much lately.

In 2011, President Obama spoke eloquently to this point. Reading his words today is a somber reminder of what we lose as a country if we let those muscles atrophy completely.

“Debates — about war and peace, about security and civil liberties — have often been fierce these last 10 years,” he noted. “But it is precisely the rigor of these debates, and our ability to resolve them in a way that honors our values and our democracy, that is a measure of our strength.”

“Decades from now, Americans will visit the memorials to those who were lost on 9/11,” Obama continued. “They will run their fingers over the places where the names of those we loved are carved into marble and stone, and they may wonder at the lives they led. Standing before the white headstones in Arlington, and in peaceful cemeteries and small-town squares in every corner of our country, they will pay respects to those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. They will see the names of the fallen on bridges and statues, at gardens and schools.

“And they will know that nothing can break the will of a truly United States of America. They will remember that we have overcome slavery and Civil War; we’ve overcome bread lines and fascism; recession and riots; communism and, yes, terrorism. They will be reminded that we are not perfect, but our democracy is durable, and that democracy — reflecting, as it does, the imperfections of man — also gives us the opportunity to perfect our union. That is what we honor on days of national commemoration: those aspects of the American experience that are enduring, and the determination to move forward as one people.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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