March 11, 2002. Half a year has passed since the morning of September 11. As recently as a month ago, flags seemed still to wave on the cars and trucks everywhere you looked on the southern California freeways that I drive each day. They have now largely vanished. Most of the flags still flying are weathered and frayed by the commuting winds of many weeks. The God Bless America decals and United We Stand bumper stickers are bleached with the sunshine of some hundred and eighty southern California afternoons. In less clement parts of the country they have endured their first winter.
The star spangled banners fray and disappear, and the reds, whites, and blues fade with the passing of days. That is as it must be. They remind us how difficult it will be to sustain the civic resolution that burst forth spontaneously six months ago in the shock and outrage of the nation. They remind us that the passion that was the proper and necessary immediate response to the attack of September 11 must be transformed into cold, hard determination. We are moving on to another stage of this bloody business. Nonetheless, as we set our flags aside—to free our hands, as it were, for the grim work ahead—it will be necessary, many times over and in countless ways and countless places in the coming months and years, to remind ourselves what these flying flags meant and what they mean.
As an immediate response to September 11, they meant, of course, heartfelt sympathy for and unity with those who were savagely murdered on that day and their families and loved ones. They meant honor for those brave rescue workers who risked and gave their lives in the heroic effort to save the lives of others. As the days and weeks passed, they meant support for those heroes placing their lives on the line far from home in the war that had been so shockingly thrust upon us. They meant death and defiance to those who had chosen to be our enemies in the world, wherever they may be found.
Interwoven with all these meanings and binding them together is the recognition by Americans that what was attacked on that day were not just any individuals but fellow countrymen, not just buildings but our country. It was America and what it stands for that were attacked and it is America and what it stands for that we are defending in this war whose end is far from sight. Those whose lives have been taken and those who daily offer their lives in this war remind us that Americans of every generation mutually pledge to one another "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." The flags remind us that this is no vagrant commitment, that there is some enduring thing in our country for the sake of which Americans make such a pledge, generation after generation, each to all and all to each.
To recall what this is, there is no better place to begin than with the most distinctively American words ever written:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . . .
These justly famous words, encapsulating the political principles and purposes to which American lives, and fortunes, and honor are mutually pledged, are, of course, found in the American Declaration of Independence.
No other document sets forth with such historic importance and memorable eloquence the central ideas of the American experiment in free government. It is because of these ideas—as a young Abraham Lincoln instructed a group of high school students over a hundred and sixty years ago—that "[w]e find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us." Like Lincoln, our generation of Americans inherited these blessings of liberty. There is no greater earthly bequest we can have received. It is our greatest duty and our highest honor as Americans to pass on this inheritance unimpaired—indeed, strengthened and improved in every way possible, to our children. Make no mistake: It is this that those barbarous fanatics meant to attack on September 11, and it is for this that we fight.
Christopher Flannery is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University.