Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
Editor’s Note: This essay was written by Michael Tilley in September 2002 as a reflection on the first anniversary of the 9/11 horror. It is reposted here with a few changes from the original.
The many memorials this week were as painfully sobering as they were respectfully appropriate. It has been one year since that day.
What fell from the sky one year ago was another trial by fire for our young country. It is fire that tempers metals of various substance and strength. The metal of America has been transformed from the raw, unshapely and unwieldy mass of the Revolution and has suffered and improved through the fires of crisis and change.
Despite the heat of civil war, civil unrest, world wars, slavery, economic depression and assassinations, the metal of America has remained strong, its edges sharp.
But our metal has become tarnished. We are complacent in our wealth and luxury and often bothered by the duties of citizenship. The formula for our metallurgical experiment, the Constitution, is often boring, and in some cases, inconvenient.
President Lincoln simultaneously boasted and warned that America’s downfall would not come from foreign hands but up through America itself. He knew of our true enemy long before Pogo.
We are one people held together by fundamental principles, the most fundamental of which is our diligent and informed participation. Unchecked apathy and comfort can lead to sudden concern and discomfort, and then we may discover at what temperature our metal was formed.
Our metal, our collective self-awareness and our tangible symbols of collective commitment to country ultimately rest in an intangible faith in each other.
We can pretend we are a capable beast, able to tame the toils of life and liberty through our own great deeds and words, but in the end there must be right and wrong. There must be judgment. There must be fire and faith.
While the fire’s heat is necessary, the flame must not become a torch. We have to draw our lines between vengeance remaining in the hands of a higher authority, and the knowledge that we have an obligation to follow the laws that promote human decency. We must administer mercy and justice so that we deserve the same, and we must be honest and fair in our judgments and actions so that we may be judged the same.
Our liberties are the alloys that form our metal. To reduce or dilute the mix, under the guise of protecting it, only weakens the basic metal. Patriotism, our greatest strength, is often our greatest weakness. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is preferable to limiting liberty and the preclusion of habeas corpus — even more so in times of national tragedy or hardship. When it comes to being governed, we must be delegates who possess a basic, rather than blind, faith in individuals and institutions. We’ve lost enough life. Let’s leave unmolested the liberty to pursue happiness.
Our existence as one people is now as it was that first July 4: tenuous. This country is held together by words on paper and by our faith. External enemies have and will continue to blatantly attack our physical metal and subtly attack our basic faith in our fellow citizens and the government we allow. They underestimate our resilience. We should not underestimate theirs.
It has been one year since that day.
We have, however, more to remember than just one day.