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Enter Stage Gabbing

The idea of America still lives

By Steven Martinovich

(September 17, 2001) - I am one of those who are lucky enough to be paid for my thoughts. As such, I'm expected to be able to critically dissect an event or action in a clinical manner and interpret it for those people who want to learn more about their world. Some days my job is easy and my passion for the subject allows me to write something cogent and interesting. Other days I have to work for my few hundred words that editors expect.

Then there was September 11.

I wanted to write something that day. I wanted to write something every day last week. I wanted to have something in the pages of this journal when it was posted last night. I found, like many other commentators, I had no words. It wasn't a failing of the English language, but rather my own failure. I've been blessed to live in a nation, Canada in my case, where events like those of last week don't happen. Although my family comes from a nation that has been in the news for the past decade for its successive bloody civil wars, we've been fortunate enough to be here when they occurred. Not that we weren't affected, however, as several of my family became victims.

The terrorist attacks, however, marked a new level of horror in my life. Even now I can scarcely believe that what I watched September 11 has really happened. Just under a week later, I still have no words to describe the multitude of feelings that collided within me. What words do you have to describe the sight of airliners filled with passengers flown into skyscrapers? What sentence could you construct to adequately describe the site of two magnificent towers collapsing? How do you write about the feelings you have when you hear a witness describe the rain of body parts out of the World Trade Centre buildings as he fled before they collapsed? The site of human beings, people so vibrantly alive minutes earlier, falling to their deaths when they jumped out of the top of the towers rather than be consumed by flames? Not even Dante could construct a circle of hell to match the things we have all seen in the past week.

But under the rubric that the public must be served, I decided that I had to address the events, if only just to be on the record.

There is a myth called America. When I write myth, I mean one of those elemental building blocks of emotion, an idea that represents an intangible. America, for billions around the world, represents a dream - an other worldly place which asks the best of its citizens and in turn attempts to fulfill their aspirations. Since the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, to the war for independence, the settlement of the west, the rise of an industrial power, Normandy and the first step taken on the Moon, America has been a symbol for whatever the viewer wanted. For most of us, that is freedom and prosperity.

For others, much smaller people, America represents an evil because it is a symbol for freedom and prosperity. Nothing engenders hate more in some people than another's success. America's greatness didn't happen because of a dictate from a central government and nor did it happen because a people were cowed into it. America's greatness came within. It came from millions of people united in a similar belief.

Unfortunately, many Americans forgot or blatantly argued against the ideas that made them great. Although the west fought a Cold War to oppose tyranny, many in the west embraced many of the elemental ideas that formed the basis of that tyranny. That trend only accelerated after the fall of Communism into open calls for freedom and prosperity to be yoked to whatever ideology the pundit believed in. Typically, it wasn't freedom they were looking for.

It's impossible to tell if the change is permanent, but I think a lot of Americans realized something on September 11. On a day that many described as perfect just minutes before the first airliner slammed into the World Trade Centre, many have come to realize that their nation is different. Many nations around the world believe in the same things that America stands for but few hold them to be near religious truths.

If the attacks can hold any good, perhaps it has reawaken a belief in the average American that their nation is unique in world history. It was the first nation on the planet to be founded in the belief that freedom was to be the highest virtue. While it unfortunately took long for that belief to be extended to all of its citizens, America has, since its declaration of independence from the English crown, represented a belief in the sanctity and greatness of the individual.

That sanctity and greatness came under attack last week, but it was reaffirmed in the spirit that Americans have shown since. It's been a long time since Americans embraced each other like they have. The last decade alone has seen things like riots in city streets, internecine battles over politics that culminated in legal battles to determine who was president just a few short months ago and class battles, things that were instantly swept aside at 8:45am on September 11, 2001.

That spirit will likely flag in the coming years as the horrific events of last week begin to recede in the memory of Americans but I doubt that it will completely disappear. It will only take one look at the spot where three buildings once stood and thousands perished to remind people of the feelings they rediscovered.

Whether it's decided to rebuild the World Trade Center - something I personally believe should be done if only to send a message to the cowards who destroyed them - or the owners go another route, I hope Americans nurture their reborn feelings of patriotism and togetherness. Remember the stories of heroism and generosity that your fellow citizens engaged in that day. Remember that you were bloodied that day, not beaten. It will take a lot more than a small man hiding in a cave to vanquish an idea.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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