“The days are long, but the years are short.” I think of that saying every September 11. On that date in 2001, in the wake of the deadliest foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it felt like time stopped, or, at least, that it should have, because how could life ever be the same? Instead, time marched on, as it always does, rudely seeming to accelerate the older one gets. Everything significant feels to me like it happened just yesterday, including my first year of blogging in 2007. On that September 11, I began my post about the anniversary with, “It’s hard to believe it’s been six years.” Now I’m marveling that I wrote those words 14 years ago, and that it’s been a full two decades since the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Arlington, Va., and Pennsylvania.
Our deeply felt national tragedy of 9/11/01 — still “yesterday” to those of us who were there — is, in reality, increasingly distant history to younger generations. It makes me think of my childhood reaction to adult conversations about November 22, 1963. The grown-ups remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Their original shock and horror was still accessible, instantly revived by the mention of the date. But their trauma occurred four years before I was born. I could sympathize with their feelings, but I didn’t share them. Today, I’m contemplating what it would have been like if my whole life had been shaped by the national response to that event. What if JFK’s assassination had led to a war in which I found myself fighting when I turned 20, in 1987? How much sympathy would I have had then? Would the original act of violence seem relevant at all?
I wonder if similar thoughts ever crossed the minds of the 13 military service members who were killed this August 26 in suicide bombings in Afghanistan, in the final days of the war that the U.S. launched weeks after 9/11. Five of them were only 20 years old when they died, meaning they were infants in 2001. Six of their comrades would have been two or three years old when the terrorist strike occurred. Did these young people ever question the goals of a war that began before some of them could even take their first steps?
Maybe not. There is no draft now, so our military is made up of volunteers who are pursuing a variety of ambitions, including college tuition, careers, and/or a higher purpose in life. Based on comments from their survivors, some of the 13 killed connected to the storied bravery and elite status of the Marines (“The Few, the Proud”) as early as their pre-school years. Other survivors cited their loved ones’ commitment to service to their country and its allies. There is evidence that opportunities for kindness were relished. A day before he was killed, 20-year-old Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui sent home a video of himself giving candy to Afghan children. And less than a week before her death, 23-year-old Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee shared a photo of her cradling a baby in Kabul. “I love my job,” she wrote on Instagram. President Joe Biden homed in on the idea of a life led for the greater good when he paid tribute to the fallen:
“The 13 service members that we lost were heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our highest American ideals and while saving the lives of others. Their bravery and selflessness has enabled more than 117,000 people at risk to reach safety thus far.“
The tragedy, or rather, the latest layer of our ongoing national tragedy, is that there is no consensus on what those “highest American ideals” are in 2021. We, as a nation, used to know what our ideals were, even though we often didn’t live up to them. Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, articulated them for posterity: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Of course, ideals are, by definition, aspirational: They’re a standard of perfection and are best thought of as a guiding light rather than something that can be achieved. Ideals require our heartfelt effort to elevate our words into something superior to mere lip service. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been a “do what we say and not what we do” society since its foundation.
Take Jefferson — that iconic proponent of equality and liberty — who called slavery “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” even as he enslaved more than 600 Black people, including his own children, at his Virginia plantation. School textbooks try to soften the impact of this information by painting Jefferson as a man of his time and culture. There’s some truth to that, but it makes him more responsible, not less, because Jefferson wasn’t only a hypocrite on a personal level, but an architect of a political and economic model of the United States that depended on slavery. In his time, he saw examples of better behavior and chose not to emulate them. In 1782, when the Virginia Assembly passed a bill allowing slaveholders to manumit (free) their slaves, Jefferson did not follow. In 1791, when one of Jefferson’s own wealthy friends and benefactors, fellow Virginian Robert Carter III, filed legal documents to free over 500 enslaved people, Jefferson did not follow. In 1799, fellow Founding Father and slaver George Washington freed his slaves in his will, but Jefferson didn’t even free his slaves upon his death in 1826.
The neatest explanation for Jefferson’s contradictions can be found in an 1820 letter he wrote to U.S. Representative John Holmes. “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other,” he wrote. Self-preservation, for all of Jefferson’s lauding of liberty, had the greater weight, leading Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway to later say of Jefferson’s posthumous pro-Emancipation reputation, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
Both Jefferson’s statement and Conway’s can be applied to America more broadly. When it’s a choice between justice and selfishness, we tend to choose ourselves, while advertising virtues that we do not have.