After 226 Years, an Independence Day Like No Other


Even if you believe, as I do, that the birth of the United States was the single best thing that ever happened to the human race, it is easy, in the procession of years, to become blas about Independence Day. I suppose this year I will do what I usually do: snooze, sunbathe, shop, maybe brave the crowds to watch fireworks, or maybe not. But it will not be an ordinary Fourth of July. It will be like none before.

Life, it is true, has not changed much since the last Fourth of July, unless you happen to be waiting in the baggage line at Dulles International Airport. Even in Washington, where so much has changed, life is much as it was. "There seems little left of the 'new' post-September America," an article in The Economist recently observed.

Is that really so? Usefully, Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research has assembled a wealth of polling data on post-9/11 America. The data suggest that there are many respects in which The Economist is right. The rally around the president persists, but the public's approval of Congress, an astonishing and charitable 84 percent in October (according to Gallup/CNN/USA Today), had deflated to a more earthbound 52 percent by June. Trust in the federal government, and belief that the government "is doing all it reasonably can do to try to prevent further terrorist attacks" (ABC News/Washington Post), have likewise floated back down from the stratosphere.

In the aftermath of the attacks last year, three-fourths of the public told Zogby International that they approved of random car searches, and 67 percent approved of random mail searches. By March, a majority had changed their minds, disapproving of both kinds of measures. In September, only 12 percent of respondents told Harris Interactive that they lacked confidence that the government would use expanded surveillance powers properly; by March, the doubting Thomases had doubled to 23 percent. I never thought I would live to see a majority of Americans saying that the media were doing an "excellent" job, but in September that is what they said (in a Pew Research Center poll). By April, that bubble, too, had burst. If Americans normally view powerful institutions with a cynical eye, then America is clearly getting back to normal.

Behavior has also largely reverted. Do you display the flag? The proportion saying yes (in Gallup/CNN/USA Today polls) fell from 82 percent in September to 68 percent in March. Do you pray more than usual? Three-fourths said yes in September, only 37 percent said so in March. Thank goodness, the percentage who reported crying as a result of September 11 fell from 70 percent to only 21 percent. The tears have dried.

And yet, for all that, people insist they are not the same. They are quite firm on that point. At least two polling firms have asked people whether their own lives have changed as a result of September 11, and both found 55 percent saying yes, not just once but consistently, in December, January, and March. Almost three-fourths said the change was for the better.

A skeptic might understandably look around and ask to see some evidence of all this improvement. After all, isn't Congress back to partisan bickering and the public back to shopping? The rejoinder is in the answer to this interesting follow-up question, which ABC and The Post put to respondents who said that 9/11 had changed their lives: "Have [the events of September 11] mainly changed the way you live your day-to-day life or mainly changed the way you feel about things?" In both December and March, respondents said, by about a 3-1 ratio, that what had changed was the way they felt.

What does that mean, exactly? What, if anything, does it amount to? I know of no applicable data and so turn to introspection. Although my own life goes on much as it did, I do not feel as I did on September 10 about myself, and I do not feel as I did about my country.

The largest change for me, after September 11, is that I no longer care so much how long I live. This attitude did not come in a revelatory flash or as a result of thoughtful analysis; quite suddenly, it was simply there. What it means is not that I have little regard for my life or would throw it away. I love living and would fight passionately, I hope, for the privilege. I would be very sorry and bitter to have been aboard one of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

On the other hand, I would be very proud to have been on United Airlines Flight 93, whose passengers fought off the terrorists, crashed their plane, and quite possibly saved the Capitol or the White House. The last three or four minutes of those people's lives were more noble than the next three or four decades of my life are likely to be.

Whether I would have had the courage, in their place, to do what they did, I have no idea. What I no longer feel, however, is that it is important to die an old man. There is such a thing as nobility, and it is better to live a short and noble life than a long and ignoble or characterless one. The ancients and many Americans of earlier generations understood this, and I thought I understood it, too; but now I think I never fully grasped what nobility meant until I saw how the firefighters of September 11 marched unhesitatingly up the stairs to oblivion.

Although America has no aristocracy, it has nobility in abundance, nobility that walks among us every day in the streets. In November, Newsweek magazine quoted Osama bin Laden as telling a Pakistani journalist: "We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us." Well, it is certainly true that Americans love life. What bin Laden did not understand, however, is that many Americans will die willingly, so long as they die in the service of life. Living for life, as Americans do, is not at all the same thing as living merely to live, as bin Laden wrongly believed Americans do.

If others feel as I feel, and perhaps some do, then indeed the country has changed. Not changed in that all who were cowards before September 11 now are brave, or all who were base now are noble. Changed, rather, in that millions of people have taken stock and chosen to be resolute, even at considerable personal cost. Millions, in that sense, have enlisted.

I would like to mention one quite particular and personal respect in which my feelings about the country have changed. As in no national emergency ever before in American history, open homosexuals were participants in the events of September 11. We participated as victims, of course (a co-pilot and several passengers aboard the ill-fated planes, for example, were gay); and we also participated as heroes. The Rev. Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department's beloved chaplain, died in the World Trade Center's north tower soon after administering last rites to a firefighter. Mark Bingham, an openly gay passenger, is thought to have been among the leaders in the reconquest of Flight 93.

In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, mainstream Americans never for a moment begrudged homosexuals their place in the narrative. This was something new. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed, among others, "the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle" for "mak[ing] God mad" and helping bring about the 9/11 attacks, and when the Rev. Pat Robertson concurred, there was no debate about whether they had a point, not even among cultural conservatives. There was merely revulsion. All at once, it was Mychal Judge and Mark Bingham who were in the mainstream, and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who were at odds with core American values.

That is not to deny that many Americans are uncomfortable with homosexuality. It is to affirm that they are much more uncomfortable with intolerance. In the social order that America's militant Islamic enemies would impose, my partner Michael and I would probably not be suffered to live, except perhaps as liars and fugitives. In that sense, this war is not being fought for an abstraction. It is being fought for me. It is being fought for the right of homosexuals to pursue happiness in the only way possible for us. The fact that many of the American fighters do not approve of homosexuality only redoubles my admiration for their sacrifice.

On this Fourth of July, wherever I am and whatever else I may be doing, I will be giving those fighters my thanks. Never have I been as proud of my country and my fellow citizens as I have been since September 11. On no prior Independence Day have I so well understood, and so keenly felt, my debt to the men who, in 1776, risked everything for what they called certain unalienable rights. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and so again, today, do their 285 million descendants; and so do I.