In the days immediately following the horrific attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a poem was left at a makeshift memorial near Ground Zero in New York. It began simply, “You rushed up the stairs of the towers, as we rushed down …”
I took my son to the official memorial just a few weeks ago. As a parent, I thought about what I wanted to tell him of that day, which—like so many Americans—I can recall so vividly. And that’s the story I wanted to tell him the most: the selfless courage of those first-responders. More than 400 firefighters and police died that September morning as the towers collapsed. Many are still dying today due to the toxic debris they breathed in. They’re part of the nearly 3,000 Americans we lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and thousands more in the aftermath and the wars since.
What I wanted my son to know is they signed up for this. The sacrifices made on 9/11 and beyond speak a truth about America that the current crop of revisionist history books can’t cancel. Those sacrifices were made willingly. What Chesterton said about war certainly applies here; the soldier (and I would add firefighter and police officer) “fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
But of course, I’m not only a parent; I’m a historian, as well. I thought about what I wanted my son to know about 9/11, but I also thought about how 9/11 will be remembered.
The attacks were of enormous historical importance. But in these postmodern times, history is twisted to political ends. We now have members of Congress who are openly anti-American, drawing a moral equivalence between the U.S. and terror groups such as Hamas. We hand out a Pulitzer Prize to a journalist who rewrote history to make America the eternal villain and the sacker of cities, rather than the shining city on a hill.
But I believe that the hope of America—the light that still draws people from every corner of the world—will continue to shine through. First responders on 9/11 set themselves apart in our hearts and in our culture. Perhaps that’s why attacks on them—through the Defund the Police movement—have taken so long to become public, even as our other institutions are being deconstructed openly.
Yet, the “defund” movement is already failing. Americans know better. They know that the true, the good, and the beautiful are still praiseworthy—as are faith, courage, and the love of America and what it stands for.
Of that poem left near the site, much has been obscured by time. Its author’s name is illegible, but she notes at the bottom she’s the “mother of a firefighter.” Yet its penultimate verse is legible: “And you, who follow the footsteps of those who went up the stairs/We give you our love, our hope, and our prayers.”
The best of Americans went up those smoke-filled stairwells, knowing they may never come down. The best of America donned the uniforms of our armed forces and went abroad to confront our enemies. What I want my children and all future generations to know is that America’s founding premise was good and noble and that the best of America is yet to come.
The best of America is still in its people—in its brave young men and women who enlist in the military or enroll in police and fire academies, in its men and women who face their fears and labor selflessly for their families, in the people who still come together to grieve the fallen and to demonstrate—again and again—that America remains the “last, best hope of Earth.”
• Kevin Roberts, Ph.D., is the Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.