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America Needs New Words on Sept. 11

by Andrew M. Schocket on Aug 26, 2002

Andrew M. Schocket

To mark the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, both Republican and Democratic politicians will read aloud on television Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address and Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Four Freedoms speech. But rereading old speeches neither pays homage to the fallen of Sept. 11, 2001, nor provides the inspiration the nation needs to give that tragedy meaning.Those tasks require new tributes and new visions.

The Gettysburg Address and the Four Freedoms speech inspired Americans to bear long and arduous war efforts, as our current war on terrorism surely will be. But they are inappropriate for this coming Sept. 11, no less than a newspaper printing last week’s headlines over today’s stories.

Those speeches were resonant because they perfectly evoked the particular circumstances that challenged the United States, and were inspiring because Lincoln and Roosevelt called on their fellow Americans to sacrifice for great goals. But yesterday’s goals — the abolition of slavery and the defeat of Germany and Japan — are not today’s. Today’s leaders must still define the goals of the war on terrorism. And they have yet to ask all Americans to take part in accomplishing its ends.

Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg to honor the Union dead after the battle near that small Pennsylvania town, a bloodbath that turned Civil War in the Union’s favor. In only 266 words, he redefined the Union effort in terms poignant and heroic: to establish “a new birth of freedom,” so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln was saying that the best way to honor the country’s brave dead was not only to show the resilience of the republic by winning the war, but also to purify the American democracy by banishing its greatest scourge, the crime of slavery.

The shocking death of innocents on Sept. 11 was nothing like the grinding, three-day battle between armies at Gettysburg. The war on terrorism doesn’t resemble the threat to the federal union that Lincoln and his contemporaries faced — a civil war — nor does the cause of that threat — slavery — resemble terrorism.

Likewise, the circumstances of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech bear few similarities to today’s challenges. Roosevelt was addressing Congress and the nation on January 6, 1941, when Germany cast its shadow over Europe and Japan loomed over Asia. Roosevelt called on Americans to defend freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Freedom of expression was a direct reference to Germany’s and Japan’s totalitarian regimes, and freedom of religion to the Nazi persecution of Jews. To some extent, freedom of expression and of religion might be considered targets of the terrorists now threatening the nation.

But Roosevelt also called for freedom from want — securing “to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.” How dare today’s leaders evoke those words, when the United States ranks dead last in foreign aid per capita among industrialized nations and when millions of Americans lack adequate health care?

And Roosevelt’s “freedom from fear” meant “a world-wide reduction of armaments” so “that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.” Those who call for an invasion of Iraq could use “freedom from fear” as their argument, but they have yet to do so in compelling terms.

Finally, just as Lincoln asked his fellow citizens “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” so Roosevelt declared, “A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes” — that is, “putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks.” That’s a far cry from contemporary politicians who consider the selfishness of tax cuts more sacred than the public good, no matter what noble tasks the public might be willing to undertake.

This Sept. 11, therefore, is not a time to be retreating into a different past, nor continuing a selfish present. Rather, it’s a time to be reflecting on the unique tragedy of last Sept. 11.Even more, it’s a time to articulate what a better future would look like and what all Americans — as individuals, as a community, as a nation — can do to bring about that better future.

Today’s leaders can certainly refer to the past — just as Lincoln evoked the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” and Roosevelt referred to Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” But they must provide a new vision to show how the dreams of the past can be made to fit today’s challenges.

On this Sept. 11, the nation’s citizens are willing and eager to undertake grand sacrifices to give meaning to the tragedy of last Sept. 11 — if only the nation’s leaders ask in their own words, and make their own history.

Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.