Appropriation of memory for gain is nothing new. As a student of history, I have to acknowledge that there is nothing particularly unique about the way the current administration has co-opted tragedy for its own agenda.
American history is full of the powerful co-opting public fear for an unrelated agenda. Massachusets farmers cried out their neighbors for witchery so that they might take their land. The lesser-known second half of "Remember the Maine!" was "To Hell with Spain!" The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that expanded Johnson's powers and led to the Vietnam War was based on faulty intelligence, but was enabled by a popular knowledge that fully believed in the Domino Theory and was convinced of its moral imperative to stop Communism before it took over the world. There is nothing new under the sun.
As a historian in training, I also have an obligation to put aside my own feelings and look for motivations for their decisions that are more sophisticated than a mere Machivellian lust for power. I am obligated to approach their choices from their vantage point, in an attempt to make sense of the course we are now on.
Luckily, I don't have to agree with it. Having fulfilled an obligation to examine a situation from a variety of viewpoints, I am also free to speak against both those viewpoints and the situation itself. Because there is a tradition and a pattern does not mean that I, as a historian or as an American, have to subscribe to it.
Tonight we saw Ken Burns speak on September 11th and the meeting of memory, history and film at the National Press Club. He's a terrific public speaker, quite the opposite of the film nerd who hides behind a camera, and I jotted down several of his comments. The one that hit me the most, though, was when he quoted this speech by Lincoln entirely from memory:
"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."
After more discussion, Burns was asked to elaborate on this quote- what did he think would be our downfall? He responded "The only thing that will destory us is our certainty. That will be our suicide."
To be so convinced of a moral imperative that we will destroy ourselves in pursuit of it. To be so set in our ways, to fear change even for the sake of progress, because the devil we know is better than the one we don't. To be one hundred percent certain of our moral superiority so that we alienate those who would be our friends. To be unable to defeat those who would hurt us because we are too busy demonizing them to get inside their heads and figure out why they hate us. To trade in absolutes. To reduce someone who is willing to die for a cause, to calculate and plan such levels of cold-blooded terror as to inspire fear far beyond the tangible damage they inflict, to someone who merely "hates freedom."
To use Biblical language of Good and Evil. Of You're With Us or Against Us. Of Lover or Hater of Freedom. Of black and white.
To leave no room for flexibility. For mistakes. For learning. For healing. For that which makes America unique in the world-- the ability to improvise and quest for self-betterment.
Bush spoke tonight of the moral imperative to stay the course in Iraq, that we are in a "struggle to preserve civilization." I don't doubt that a struggle exists, but I do doubt the wisdom of importing democracy at the riflepoint of a Marine. I deeply doubt a leader who tells us that we have no choice but to stay the floundering course and beat the drums of war, though we have no indication that we know how to fix what we have already done or even know where that course leads us. There are always choices, however unpalatable some may find them. That ability to pursue choice is what I cling to as others co-opt tragedy for their own agenda. It boils my blood that there are people who have won elections on a platform of protecting people like me, only to use their office to attack the very beliefs I hold most dear.
But I don't have to agree with them.
Walking home from the Metro tonight, I paused in the boulevard on Pennslyvania Avenue and stared down the street at the Capitol dome lit up against the inky sky over the Mall. I feel squeamish about using the word "patriotic," because it too has been co-opted for uses I don't agree with, but I felt a profound wave of gratitude. I felt grateful it was still there.
I felt grateful that I had just come from an event where I was able to ask one of the greatest historians in the country what he thought of this day. I felt grateful that tomorrow I will use a voting machine for the first time in my life. Grateful that I am a woman allowed to pursue an education, have a career, live alone and enjoy an incredible amount of personal freedom. Grateful, even, for this little corner of the Internet where I have complete control to write whatever I want and am bound by nothing but my own sense of propriety and responsibility.
And above all, grateful that I was free to disagree with it all.