Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Speech to Remember

This weekend there were many tributes to the 9/11 victims and heroes. At the best of these remembrances our own mortality is acknowledged and our own morality is inspired.

However, I can not stop noticing that for a few people the slogan, "Remember 9/11" has become what "God bless America" is for the same few. These phrases which should be prayerful and thoughtful are more like pugnacious challenges: "By-god, I'm all-American, I remember 9/11 and I know that God blesses America, but I have my suspicions about you, and what you believe."

On the opposite side of this example Delaware's Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn gave a fantastic speech on September 10th in Georgetown to commemorate Patriots' Day. Nothing more needs to be written by me. I have simply copied his speech below, enjoy and learn:

"Tomorrow, September 11th, is Patriot Day. We have commemorated it every year since 2002, and as President Bush said when he declared the first Patriot Day, it reminds us to “always remember our collective obligation to ensure that justice is done, that freedom prevails, and that the principles upon which our Nation was founded endure.” Some facts about September 11th are self-evident. The heroism of the men and women who died that day was profound, and it will be remembered by my grandchildren and their grandchildren. The lesson it taught us about the need to increase our vigilance in a world where two oceans no longer protect us has also taken hold.

To take only those lessons from September 11th, though, is too easy. We should also strive to be a people, to create a country, of which those who gave their lives on 9/11 would be proud. The drafters of our Constitution began by saying “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” They did not use language lightly. When they said “a more perfect union,” they recognized that even the nation they were creating would not be what it ultimately could be. The framers would be proud of the nation we have become.

From a nation that declared black Americans to be 3/5 of a person and denied women the right to vote, we have become a nation that has enshrined in its Constitution the equal treatment of all Americans regardless of race or gender. The framers would think—and more importantly, the men and women who have given their lives to defend this country would think–that a nation where personal differences are not punished is a more perfect union.

So how can we continue to make a more perfect union, to honor the memory of those who gave their lives on September 11th? One way would be to heed the words of past presidents of both parties, and past religious leaders of many denominations, to also become a kinder nation.When President George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001, he eloquently invoked the Bible when he said “I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” Exactly a quarter of a century before him, President Jimmy Carter began his own inaugural address by using words of the prophet Micah that are central to the Jewish faith: that we should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

In some ways this goal, of a kind and compassionate nation, is harder to achieve, because it can’t be legislated and it can’t easily be measured. But to strive for it would honor Salman Hamdani. Salman Hamdani died on September 11th. He was a police cadet with the NYPD, and a trained emergency medical technician, an American citizen who had immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan when he was one. When he heard about the attacks on the towers, he rushed there immediately, even though he was off duty. Because he was Muslim and disappeared without a trace on September 11th, he was publicly identified as a suspect in the terrorist attacks. On March 20, 2002, his remains were finally found at Ground Zero, the Mayor of New York and chief of the NYPD eulogized him as a hero at his funeral, and his heroism was recognized by the United States Congress. Striving for a kinder, more compassionate nation would honor Salman Hamdani in deed as well as in word.

To strive for it would honor Father Michayl Judge. Father Judge was the New York Fire Department’s chaplain on September 11th. He had been the chaplain for nine years, and some time during that nine years he had told the Fire Commissioner and other friends that he was a celibate gay man. Father Judge also raced to the towers when he heard of the attacks, and administered late rites to those dying on the scene. He turned down pleas that he leave the area, and instead went back into the north tower to be with his men just before the building collapsed, killing him. His body was carried from the scene by firefighters and laid at the altar of a nearby church, designated by the city as victim number one of the World Trade Tower attack because his body was the first removed. Striving for a kinder, more compassionate nation would honor Father Judge in deed as well as in word.

We can honor the deaths of these patriots, and all the others who perished on September 11th, by continuing the work started over two centuries ago to make this nation a more perfect union. In this more perfect union we will recognize our differences not as a burden to be borne, but as a strength to be cherished. And we will carry forward the tradition of constant progress toward perfection that has allowed America to continue to be a beacon for the world through generations. On this September 11th, let us honor its patriots by rededicating ourselves to making the country they died for, already the finest nation in the world, finer still."

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