September 11, 2020
19 Years Later, We Still Remember
Today, we celebrate—and remember, as we promised we would never forget—the 19th anniversary of the tragic events; that is, the brutal attack on American lives, on American rights, and on American soil led by a fundamentalist terrorist.
19 is an odd number, and yet an important number. As I give this talk, I’ve been at this college 21 years. My oldest son, Nathaniel, is a senior and 21 years old. My oldest daughter, Gretchen, is 19 years old and a sophomore.
19 years, indeed, has been a lifetime for many of you standing here.
Not atypically, I was teaching back-to-back Western Heritage courses the morning of the attacks. One 8:00 section, one 9:30 section. We were most likely on Pericles or Socrates. In between the two, a flustered student told me about the events in New York, but, of course, everything was confused. Later that morning, my wife, Dedra, and I ran into President Arnn in the old Ethen Allen Room—who informed us quite rightly that Hillsdale would continue the day in class, as it’s exactly what the terrorists would NOT want.
I’m sure no one in this crowd is shocked by Dr. Arnn’s strength of character.
2,977 Americans died on 9/11. Lives were silenced, then; and, by executive order, the skies were silenced. On that day, there were victims, there were first responders, there were heroes; all were American.
My favorite story—one that never ceases to get to me—is about one of the passengers on Flight 93: Tom Burnett—a 38-year old Wall Street Banker, father of three girls, husband to a beautiful wife, and a devout Christian. This man, a former college football player for St. John’s College in Minnesota, a lover of business as well as of ancient Greek philosophy, helped two other courageous American men drive a jet airliner into rural Pennsylvania soil on a clear September morning, 2001. “We’re all going to die, but three of us are going to do something about it. I love you honey.” These were his last words to his wife on his cell phone.
Liberty and sacrifice. I was teaching that in Western Heritage that morning, and I was witnessing it all around us.
And, here we stand at Central Hall, September 11, 2020. Right there, is our moment to men who died on Pennsylvania soil.
Indeed, numerous Hillsdale men sacrificed their lives at the Battle of Gettysburg (in and around a little Lutheran town). The 24th Michigan on July 1; the 4th Michigan on July 2. Each day, Hillsdale College men sacrificed themselves for something greater than each of them. They sacrificed for each other, for the college, for the republic. They sacrificed for us.
Liberty and sacrifice—these words, these themes, keep coming back to me and, I hope, to all of us.
And, I am reminded of one of the greatest of republican martyrs, Marcus Tullius Cicero, murdered by his executive in 43BC. He wrote, profoundly,
“Before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ one which he said ‘the republic of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown.
And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the name of republic, but have long since lost its essence” [Cicero, The Republic, Book 5, Section 1]
As we live in a season of confusion, I wonder if we could write this not just of 43BC but of 2020AD.
And, yet, no matter what, the sacrifices remain. . . the voices are not silent. . . the sky is not silent.
Let us remember—those voices silenced on 9/11. Let us remember the victims. Let us remember the first responders. Let us remember the heroes. Americans all. And, let us be like Cicero. Let us be like the 4th and the 24th Michigan regiments. Let us be like Tom Burnett.
May our colors never fade, may our voices never cease, may our skies rage: liberty and sacrifice.
God bless, America.
[I had the grand privilege of giving this talk to the Hillsdale College community at noon on September 11, 2020.]