Archive for the ‘The character of America’ Category

It Was My Duty

Author: Gary Hart

Decades more must pass before the human heart and mind can grasp the full meaning of September 11, 2001. Those of us close enough to have issued warnings that were ignored have our own memories and burdens.
I am clear on one thing, however. Save for our Civil War, there is no other event in American history where the meaning of duty was revealed more vividly. Responding to the increasingly urgent emergency calls, hundreds of New York City firemen and policemen rushed to the scene. Three hundred and forty three firemen and 60 policemen—at least 418 first responders–did not come out alive.
Why did they do it? What causes men and women to act bravely and without concern for personal safety? This is one of the deepest mysteries of the human condition. Those who escaped this man-made holocaust said, when asked why they did it, it was my job. It was my duty.
Duty in this case goes well beyond fulfilling a contract or doing what one is paid to do. It involves willingness to sacrifice one’s life for others. Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for another.
A woman who had always been put off by the excessive display of the American flag stood on Seventh Avenue in Midtown that day. As a flatbed truck loaded with hard-hat construction workers raced southward with flags flying, she said she wept.
Duty in the interest of saving lives is near the essence of what makes us human and what adds a spiritual dimension to our character. Most of us wonder if, when faced with personal danger to help another, we would have the courage to act. There is not one report of a fireman or policeman who suddenly found something else to do when the alarms went off and calls to action went out. There were fellow Americans, fellow human beings, in those buildings. This is my job. This is my duty.
Who can ever forget the hollow-eyed shock on the grim and grimy faces of the surviving public safety workers coming out of those collapsing buildings. I shared only one thing with them: the sense that I did not do enough. And it haunts me to my grave that I should have pounded on the doors of editorial writers and presidents demanding that they take the warnings of terrorist attacks seriously.
I cannot say, then, that I did my duty. Unlike those courageous firemen and policemen, I should have done more.
Duty is near the core of the values that matter. To do one’s duty is to achieve integrity and integrity is near the center of nobility.
It is my hope that Americans alive on September 11, 2001, will never forget the firemen and the policemen, both those who gave their lives and those who survived. They are lessons in duty and integrity and nobility. They are symbols of that to which we all may aspire.
“Some things” such as duty, “are universal, catholic, and undying. They do not age or pass out of fashion, for they symbolize eternal things. They are the guardians of the freedom of the human spirit, the proof of what our mortal frailty can achieve.” (Montrose, John Buchan)

The Character of America

Author: Gary Hart

In the space of a lifetime great America has gone from asking what we could do for our country to small minded appeals to shrink our government and drown it in a bathtub.  For a long time it was appealing to believe that we were simply going through one of Arthur Schlesinger’s cycles of American history, a conservative era to be followed by a progressive era.  But there is a different, troublesome, much less traditional character to this current period of intransigence, bitterness, and hostility on the right.

Its roots may lie in the assasinations of the 1960s and the Pentagon Papers and Watergate of the 1970s.  A government capable of providing a social safety net was also capable of lying to its citizens.  A society capable of embracing a new Camelot was also capable of harboring assassins.  Other factors have also been at work.  Civil rights for African-Americans, a dramatically increasing Hispanic population, emergence of women into the work force, and gays and lesbians emerging from the shadows all characterize a dramatically changing society.  To the conservative mind that resists change, all these changes are overwhelming.

And then there is a ceiling to the American dream for many.  Incomes in the middle flattened in the 1970s and 80s under the impact of global competition and OPEC oil pricing.  Debt escalated to an extent that millions of Americans lost their homes due to mortgage manipulation.  Wealth flowed upward with tax cuts for the rich, and unemployment settled around ten percent.  All this put together replaces Happy Days with very angry days.  And a government weakened by distrust is about to default on its debts.

There has always been a force on the right in America.  In troubled times it attracts those not normally inclined to its fears and anger.  Anti-government anger will continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on American politics until at least one thing happens…Americans must regain confidence in their individual and our collective economic hopes.  Nothing would restore a sense of balance, promise, and optimism like a growing economy with job security and opportunities for the young and the unemployed.  While corporate America hoards its immense cash accounts, the government reduces infrastructure investment, and new wealth is limited to Twitter and Facebook projects, however, there is little hope for real economic growth in the near term.

The central question is whether economic recovery, and therefore hope for the future among the vast majority of Americans, will occur soon enough to prevent the establishment of a permanent force of the right, a force that will continue to mock any idealistic challenge to give something back to our country and urge us to hate our government.  It is fundamentally a question of who we are and what we believe.  It is a question of what kind of people we are and what kind of society and nation we wish our children to inherit.  It is a question of our national character. 

If we succomb to the forces of the right and hate the government we elect we will no longer be the America of our founders.  We will be some other kind of country.