Five Years Later Washington is a town of memorials. We commemorate the Second World War, we commemorate the Vietnam War, the Korean War. We honor some of our founding fathers: George Washington, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and those who carried forward their mantle of self-governance. These are all honorings of events that are past us, events that have been placed in their context and examined fully. The events are weighed in the balance by our later selves. Heroes are found and enshrined. Events are honored, chronologies crafted and taught, lessons are brought out from the skeins of history like threads in a weaver’s loom. In the present, with no such advantage, we are allowed only to interpret events to the best of our ability with the information that we can craft.

Today we look back and face the horrors of four plane crashes. Crashes that claimed thousands of lives, as they careened into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field outside of Shanksville, PA have become an integral part of our current perspective. Constantly we’re reminded in the images in modern media of the gap in the skyline where the WTC once stood. If you’re driving by the Pentagon on 395 each day, you see the new section of the building where once charred bricks and flames were all the decoration visible. We see it in every airport, on each Metro train, in every policeman carrying a military rifle openly, and at every federal building.

We’re unable yet to place the events of five years ago into a context, and this is gravely unsettling to us. Just as our grandparents couldn’t see the completed chapter of World War II after Pearl Harbor, or our parents couldn’t see the completed Cold War before the Berlin Wall fell, so too are we left to muddle our way through this “Global War on Terror” until the last of the Islamic terror movements are disarmed or an armistice is reached.

We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. We don’t know how many more lives will be claimed by the unrest in Iraq, or the reformation of Afghanistan, nor of the other flashpoints of Islamic terrorism in the West like Bali or London or Madrid. We don’t know that victory can be confidently claimed (Mission Accomplished and other “turning point” gaffes all aside), nor do we expect to come out without bloody hands and feet.

I spent yesterday taking some friends through the monuments. We began at the Jefferson Memorial, seeing the words of wisdom of the author of our democracy. We continued by seeing the World War II memorial, which highlights the overthrow of the totalitarian regime that controlled 1930-1945 Germany. After that, it was Vietnam and Korea, each a part of the Cold War that dominated half a century of this country’s history. The crown of the day came with Abraham Lincoln’s Memorial, and the second inaugural address, written at the darkest hour of this country’s history. With the country torn asunder by internal disagreement, with brothers fighting one another openly in the battlefields at Antietam, at Gettysburg, Lincoln concluded his speech with this gem of American thought:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Today, we find ourselves at a similar precipice. Faced with the barrage of threats, internal and external, Abraham Lincoln wished malice upon none, not even those causing harm to his own nation. He sought instead to work to finish the work of reuniting his nation, to rebuilding her, and to care for those harmed in the struggle to maintain a more perfect union. He sought to make sure that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” There is much for us to learn from that perspective, and I hope that in the coming years, we shall follow his sage advice.

I wish today that all who seek to do us harm would stop and examine the principles upon which we are founded: the equality of all people, the franchise of all people to assist in their governance, the freedom of people from tyranny and the dedication of this nation to rights of the people to be free from fear, free from want, free to speak, and free to worship. These freedoms come with heavy prices, which we have paid in the past, and are paying now, and will pay again. Understanding that, I hope that they can respect our freedoms, respect our desires and cease their pursuit of our destruction for not subsuming ourselves to a specific religion, a limit upon speech, and a poverty that only the tyranny of evil men can cause.

This is the result I hope for. This is the result I hope that my grandchildren will see on the Mall some decades hence, when I am old, and when this war is over. For now, though, I will settle for a day without bombs, a day without crashes, a day without fear.

Coda: Garrison Keillor recently remarked at the end of Prairie Home Companion that this nation, now more than in any recent time, is fighting for its very survival. He hearkened back to the era of Francis Scott Key, when the White House had been burned, the Capitol lay ruined and the country in disarray. The National Anthem, unlike many other patriotic anthems, holds with it no reference to creed or to God, but only to the strength and health of the republic for which it stands.

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming!
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Our flag flies today over the Pentagon, over the World Trade Center site, and over a field in Shanksville, but it does not fly there alone. It flies all around the world, despite the efforts of those to bring it down.

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