Nearly four years after a horrifying attack on the homeland, the onset of a "different kind of war," missions to implant democracy in totalitarian lands, and a fierce debate over domestic liberties, the question lingers: How does America retain its identity as a beacon of freedom as it defends itself from an extremist culture willing to use that very freedom to dim that beacon?
That question cannot be answered if America's unique identity and history is obscured through an unfortunately misguided attempt to commemorate the day.
Last month, the Pentagon announced plans for the "America Supports You Freedom Walk" to take place September 11, 2005. It is designed "to honor the victims of 9/11 and America's military personnel, as well as to celebrate freedom." The walk begins near where the Pentagon was struck on 9/11, continues through Arlington Cemetery, over the Potomac and concludes by the reflecting pool on the National Mall—where a Clint Black concert will conclude the festivities. Other literature notes that the walk "is free but people must register" for a walk "[passing] several inspiring military memorials."
On the left, the event has produced two somewhat linked criticisms: 1) This is a pro-war stunt designed to play upon the public's grief over 9/11 and desire to show "support for the troops." 2) Press organizations such as The Washington Post and various local media stations are compromising their journalistic independence by sponsoring the event. (On August 15th, the Post pulled its sponsorship.)
The overarching "America Supports You" campaign is itself a worthwhile endeavor—it encourages Americans to show their support for the men and women in the military, demonstrates how Americans are doing that, and posts goodwill wishes to be passed along to the troops.
But this event's direction should give everyone—liberal, conservative, moderate, or other—pause.
America celebrates Independence Day, July 4—the nation's birthday. Beyond the fireworks, barbecues and concerts on the mall, the idea is to commemorate the moment when the values of democratic freedom and individual liberty that the nation has come to represent were first inscribed in print.
America also celebrates Veterans Day, November 11, to honor the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who have worn the uniform of the various services in defense of those ideals at home and abroad. That is a day for reflection.
America also observes Memorial Day on the last Monday in May, specifically honoring the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice protecting this nation and fighting for the ideals first written down on July 4, 1776.
The walk aims to mix the memory of the 9/11 victims with a salute to those currently serving in the military and a "celebration" of freedom—combining three separate sentiments and gestures into an inappropriate spectacle.
Yes, we honor the departed and keep them in our memory. In New York, the sacrifices of the police officers and firefighters who died saving others as the World Trade Center fell down around them will never be forgotten. Nor will the heroism of the ordinary passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.
But the fact remains that this was one of America's darkest days—and not just because of the deaths of over 3,000.
It was a day of failure.
It was a day when misguided policies going back years, if not decades, came home to roost. The right and the left will continue to argue whether the Clinton administration or the Bush administration deserves more of the blame for allowing a relatively small band of operatives to produce more death and devastation on American soil than any outside enemy had ever previously managed.
But there is little disagreement over one essential fact: September 11, 2001, was a day when institutions designed to protect America, particularly the intelligence community, failed.
The evidence is manifest in multiple detailed congressional and independent commission reports detailing the failure to prevent the awful plot. (And that's not even counting the recent, and disputed "Able Danger" allegations.)
It is beyond dispute that America's institutions failed because of multiple "missed opportunities." As Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said in July, the FBI was responsible for a "a significant failure that hindered…chances of being able to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks."
Among the oversights noted in a recent independent panel report, the CIA failed to recognize the importance of the arrest in mid-August 2001 of so-called "20th hijacker," Zaccharias Moussaoui.
Other CIA gaffes were left classified for more than a year in an internal report that has yet to be released, as current CIA director Porter Goss tries either to minimize embarrassment to his predecessor George Tenet or to prevent Tenet from spreading embarrassment to either the agency or the administration.
Considering the actual history, linking 9/11 to support for the military borders on being an insult to America's soldiers and Marines—who certainly weren't responsible for governmental failure on an historically catastrophic level.
You want to identify a day bonding America to the accomplishments of its men and women in uniform? Consider October 7 when Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in Afghanistan: A united nation stood in near-total support of an action that led to the eviction of the Taliban government that had provided a base of operations for al Qaeda.
"Freedom Walks," ironically, does precisely the opposite of what America is historically supposed to be about. Even following its worst moments, America always seeks to look and move forward. If America is hit, it gets up and moves ahead—as the America of the 1940s did after it suffered an attack on its bases at Pearl Harbor.
There was no desire to transmogrify a day of death and destruction into an argument that "this is what America is all about." Pearl Harbor was a sad moment in the history of the country—correctly termed by President Roosevelt as "a date that will live in infamy." Yes, we said "Remember Pearl Harbor"—but as a temporary exhortation that passed with the moment.
The intended legacy of 9/11 will apparently be something different. Administration literature claims that, "Next year, on the fifth anniversary," it is "hopeful that every state will conduct a Freedom Walk, which will begin an important tradition in our country of commemorating 9-11 and also highlighting the importance and cost of Freedom."
That is a plan to institutionalize, no, immortalize 9/11. Instead of allowing the date to remain consigned to infamy, it is being elevated into a great "celebration." Making America's worst day synonymous with freedom—in essence, putting it on a level with the day when our Founding Fathers first crafted a sacred document that identified certain Creator-endowed unalienable rights—seems almost Orwellian.
In New York, several 9/11 families, the firefighters union and many others have protested a proposed "International Freedom Center" in a museum next to Ground Zero out of a fear that the site's hallowed nature would end up being besmirched from an academic and ultimately disturbing celebration of "freedom."
Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, wrote that the IFC will produce: "a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world…"
For Burlingame, a Ground Zero memorial with an adjacent freedom "celebration" that features "a high-tech, multimedia tutorial about man's inhumanity to man, from Native American genocide to the lynchings and cross-burnings of the Jim Crow South, from the Third Reich's Final Solution to the Soviet gulags and beyond," misses the point.
It is an inappropriate juxtaposition telling precisely the wrong lessons about post-9/11 America—suggesting that freedom can only truly be understood in the context of America's failure to uphold its ideals.
The "Freedom Walk" makes the same mistake in the opposite direction—suggesting that freedom can only truly be understood in the context of the role of the military in America's existence.
The American concept of freedom was conceived in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized in the Constitution. In drafting those documents, the Founders helped weave the soul of the country. That is something far more essential and enduring than what seems to be the latest manifestation of a baby-boomer generation staple—elevating the cult of the victim into a mawkish perpetual sentimentality.
No one disputes that the present United States could not have existed or thrived without war—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II in particular. Wars are sad necessities and it is correct to honor those who fight them. Hurricane Katrina demonstrates the importance of having an efficient military in peacetime as well.
But the United States is not its military. It is a constitutional republic, "of the people, by the people and for the people." The republic's revolutionary spirit preceded the actual taking of arms to reject forcibly Old World monarchy. An event that marries commemoration of the civilian dead and adulation for the military would be bad enough merely for the way it muddles both sentiments. But to staple these onto a pre-fabricated "freedom" celebration does an injustice to the true nature and history of American Freedom.