When I first sat down to write this email I was a sophomore at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. I was seeking to find and establish my own identity in the midst of a nation searching to redefine its own. I write here today from a computer in the basement of the Jefferson Memorial, writing from an American icon in the heart of our nation’s capitol as a National Park Ranger, charged with interpreting and giving meaning to the American identity.
My perspective has certainly changed in these last nine years. It has greatly changed in the last year alone. A year ago I wrote this email sitting in the back of my truck in the shadow of Chimney Rock in Nebraska before spending the remainder of the day following the steps of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It is a fitting symbol for my own journey across the country that has brought me to the heart of the United States of America with the charge of bringing meaning to the same.
Much has changed in this city and this country since 9-11. In many ways we now live in a different world. The significance of what has changed since September 11, 2001 is very evident in my daily life here in Washington in a myriad of ways. Every time I walk up to the Washington Monument I have to take a circular path alongside walls built to keep vehicles from approaching the Monument and pass through security before actually entering the Monument itself. Much about the approach to the Capitol, the White House, and many other Federal buildings has been changed as well. It is strange to think that a single event can have such a dramatic effect on a national identity.
There is great power in an idea, and the idea that we, as a nation, are vulnerable to attack is a significant influence on our approach and policies to issues ranging from immigration to celebrating Independence Day.
Ideas are what this nation is founded upon. Ideas centered upon the unalienable axiomatic rights shared by all citizens of humanity. This is not the first time that events that occurred in September have influenced the course and identity of this nation. On September 11, 1777 the American army successfully stood its ground against the British at Brandywine. Although the British ultimately won the fight, the American defeat was a result of poor intelligence rather than poor fighting ability and it proved that we, as Americans, could and would stand up against the most powerful military force in the world. Eight days later, on September 19 Johnny Burgoyne launched the first of two attacks against Horatio Gates along the Hudson River that would culminate in the surrender of Burgoyne’s entire army on October 17, proving that we could not only stand up and fight, but that we could win.
Four years later Washington launched a coordinated attack against Cornwallis at Yorktown on September 28, leading to the surrender of Cornwallis three weeks later. That action effectively ended the military action of the Revolution, a sentiment which was made fact two years later on September 3, 1783 with the signing of the treaty of Paris. Four years after that the now united states came together and successfully produced the great compromise, a document we now know as the United States Constitution, officially ratified on September 17, 1787.
At this point you may be asking why I am telling you all of this. What does the American Revolution have to do with September 11th anyway? Everything. It has everything to do with it. Writing in June of 1776 John Adams stated that,
"Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.”
It is this revolution that has come to characterize and bring definition to the identity of this nation. It is the unity that came out of this revolution that was so intimately touched by the events of nine years past. It is this revolution that causes us to believe that an attack upon one of us is an attack upon all of us. It is this revolution that gives meaning to the symbols of America across this nation.
I have been immersed in American History for the last eight months, not only reading a great deal, but also being privileged to see much of it first hand. Among the many things I have seen include both the Pentagon and Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. It isn’t just a distant picture in my mind any longer; it is something tangible, that I have seen right in front of me. But I think the greatest and most lasting significance is not to be found in the physical locations of the attacks or in the details of the events that took place nine years ago, but rather in the impact that these events have had upon the American psyche.
Yesterday as I stood at the top of the Washington Monument directing people as they exited the elevator I noticed that five of the men that were exiting were dressed in the attire of a firefighter. I looked closer and saw that the patches on their arms bore the letters FDNY. I had the opportunity to talk to two of these men and asked them what brought them to DC. I was expecting the answer to be something about 9-11. Instead I was surprised to hear that they had come for a softball tournament that just happened to be this weekend. They went on to tell me that, though could not be in New York, they had gone to visit the Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed Medical Center the day before and would be at the Pentagon today.
Both of the men I was talking to had gone into the WTC towers that day. Both had risked their lives to save others. The one guy was stationed at a firehouse in Lower Manhattan in the immediate vicinity and was among the first to respond. He was the only one of the members of his engine company that walked away from ground zero that day. That was a deeply sobering thought. Here was a man standing in front of me for whom the events of 9-11 will be forever associated with sacrifice and loss, not only for the nation as a whole, but in the midst of his own brothers.
This is not a distant chapter in our history books. It is a deeply personal and life changing tragedy for many Americans. So let us remember those who lost their lives nine years ago. But let us also remember that it is but one chapter in a larger story, a story of a people united together in common purpose, through great adversity, in the sight of God.
As George Washington put it,
No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
There is a higher purpose in the values upon which this nation is founded. I don’t mean to say that Americans are God’s chosen people. Rather that as representatives of these values we have an obligation to both hold true to them and to bring them into tangible application. There is nothing more important that the unity of the common bond of humanity, uniting us together as a free and independent state firmly relying upon God and his values as we seek to live them out in support of one another. That, like our fathers before us, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”