There is nothing inevitable American freedom. All can be undone.
America’s children need to see clearly a terrible truth through the dust of Sept. 11, 2001: There is nothing inevitable about our civilization—nothing inevitable about American individualism, or freedom of movement and social mobility, or our secular tolerance. All can be undone.
For my parents, immigrants to this country, America seemed surprising and new. On the other hand, because I was born here I assumed America. I assumed that my parents’ hard work would gain us passage to the middle class; I assumed that women and men of every race could vote; I assumed freedom of opinion, just as I assumed that people of various religions could live as neighbors.
Perhaps such rosy assumptions are inevitable in the young. The old know change; the young know only the given. Similarly, because America is a young nation, we easily assume our civilization as a given. Older nations, by contrast, have seen their great cities toppled, the beliefs and assumptions of generations overturned overnight.
When I was in school, U.S. history classes seemed happily fated. There were past calamities, to be sure—slavery, the massacre of Indians, the mistreatments suffered by the poor—but these were mere obstacles to the present, obstacles overcome by battles or treaties or acts of Congress or by the lucky coincidence of heroic lives and national need. As a boy, I loved American history, precisely for its lack of tragedy. I loved Ben Franklin and the stories of the Underground Railroad and the New Deal, because everything led happily to me, living at 935 39th St. in Sacramento, Calif.
The man awoke, years later, to see jet airliners (the symbol of our mobility) turned against us by terrorists; to see the collapse of the World Trade Center (the symbol of our global capitalism); to see a wall of the Pentagon (the assurance of our self-defense) in flame. What I realized that Tuesday morning last September is that America is vulnerable to foreign attack.
But I wonder now if we understand that our civilization has always been vulnerable. Our American values and laws emerged over time, after false starts and despite many near-reversals. For example, our tradition of religious tolerance and secularism that today makes America home to every religion in the world was not born easily or quickly. Mormons, Jews, Catholics—a variety of persons have in the past suffered religious persecution at the hands of their American neighbors. Today, to their and our shame, there are some in America who attack Muslims. Without a sense of the tragic in U.S. history books, we have never understood that America finally was formed against and despite the mistakes and reversals we committed against our own civilization. Now, our children glance up to wonder at the low-flying plane. They need, also, to look back in time, to see America ever-invented, forged through difficult decades into a civilization. That civilization was always at risk. Always vulnerable. Never inevitable. Not just because of threats from without. But from our own ignorance of all we possessed.