With July 4th fast approaching, I want to challenge all of my readers with a serious post. In the coming days, many of you will be celebrating July 4th. There will be fireworks and parades and barbeques and more than one chance to hear the national anthem.
The national anthem has always been special to me. Those words, those notes, those trumpets—they evoke images of battles long past. Behind that Star-Spangled Banner, I envision flashing muskets and thundering cannons swallowed in billowing clouds of smoke and powder. But for some, the national anthem has become a vain repitition, just like Memorial Day, July 4th, and September 11th. How many people actually pause to think about what these memorials represent? I asked myself this question recently—specifically on the eleventh year anniversary of September 11th.
When I was still in college, our student body participated in a moment of silence before singing the national anthem. One of the faculty members instructed the students to stand at attention and cover their hearts during the song. Following this instruction, I clicked my heels together, pinched my shoulders back, put my left hand to my side and my right hand over my heart. As the music built and the verses swelled to that glorious climax, my chest puffed and something thick formed in my throat. Tears welled as I felt something warm bubble from my heart. The visions I normally have—of wooden ships and fleeing redcoats—gave way to exploding planes and tumbling towers.
The memory panged my being. But looking around that college chapel, I noticed students talking and slouching, heeding no respect to the song or the flag or the memory of that fateful day. I had expected to see them struggling with emotions as well, but my expectations were met, instead, with disrespet and apathy. It seemed that my colleagues—especially the new, young freshman—did not hold the importance of September 11th in the same awe as I did. There and then it dawned on me: this generation does not remember September 11th the way I do; therefore, they do not respect something they cannot connect with. For me, September 11, 2001 stands as a day that I will always remember for the lesson it taught me about apathy. That display of apathy by my fellow college students reminded me of the same lack of concern that immediately preceded the events of September 11th, 2001; but, more importantly, it reminded me of the harrowing lesson that day taught to so many of us. Apathy results in tragedy.
When I was ten years old, I did not understand what hate really was—much less apathy. My days were spent going to elementary school and my life revolved around recess, lunchtime, and kickball. So when my mother pulled me out of school early on the morning of September 11th, 2001, I had no idea how much my view of the world would change in the coming hours. I am reminded of that ill-famed day: a gorgeous fall morning in the suburbs of Connecticut, the crisp autumn air that made your breath a little deeper and your mind a little clearer. Life was good until the phone rang and my teacher told me that my mom was waiting for me at the principal’s office. Carrying my lunch bag and backpack down the hall, I distinctly remember one of my friends coming alongside me. He was headed to the same place.
“Did your mom come to get you too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “It must be something bad, my mom never gets me out of school.”
Something about those words struck a dark, hollow chord deep inside me. For as long as I live, I will never forget his face, his words, and the uncertainty in his voice. That feeling that something was wrong stirred my intuition, as if my guts had been stirred with a spoon. That black premonition has loomed in my memory ever since.
Few things will frighten an adolescent worse than the sight of their crying mother. When I met her in the principal’s office, she smiled and pulled me close for one of those hugs that communicate a certain sense of urgent love, as if it might be the last. I remember her holding my cheeks and kissing my forehead again and again before scooting me out of the office and through the front door of the school. As we walked toward the car, I noticed that her green eyes gleamed from recent bouts of crying.
“Mom,” I asked. “Is something wrong?” She turned and smiled at me—but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
With a quivering voice, she explained to me the tragedy of that day: how hijackers took control of the planes, how they crashed them into buildings, how there might be more of them.
She fumbled with her keys as she added something under her breath, “Dad said there might be a war.”
That day unfolded like a harrowing dream, as if I now found myself in a parallel universe. The world that I knew seemed cracked at its very core and the realization sunk in: bad things could happen. My family did what they always did when bad things happened, they convened at Granny’s house—the family matriarch—to weather the storm together. Crammed into that house, we huddled around the archaic tube television and listened to the news anchors. The images of the twin towers shrouded in smoke and flame prompted me to keep asking one pleading question: Why?
Then, it happened. With all of us hypnotized by the television, we watched—in horror—as a second plane flew into view and exploded against the other tower. My mother screamed; my uncle punched the wall; my father stared in tear-filled silence. For a ten-year-old, that moment felt like the end of the world. My father and my uncle sprang to action and paced the house, boisterously shouting that they would join the military. The prospect of my dad fighting—maybe even dying—sent tremors through my soul.
I cannot describe the feelings I felt toward what was happening and what it meant: I just know that I felt numb. Confusion met with anger, I did not know which to feel. Watching people dive out of burning buildings to tumble to their death; seeing the World Trade Center collapse; hearing the sound of distant town sirens wail their warning of impending doom—they made my heart break for my country. But it did not feel like any other heartbreak—not the heartbreak I felt when my dog ran away or my grandmother died—it felt as if my heart had collapsed with those burning towers, replaced with nothing more than an empty hole. Freedom felt dead.
And that feeling has haunted me ever since.
Now you can understand why the national anthem stirs my heart; why remembering September 11th matters; why memorial should never be a vain repetition, but a heartfelt embrace.
That day taught me the reality of hate—the reality that hate exists and that my world is not an impervious glass shell. Our country was attacked: our people, our buildings, our way of life were destroyed or assaulted in such a way that they will never be the same again. The question I kept asking myself—why did this happen—gave way to “How could this happen?” And then I learned about apathy. Instead of discussing every reason why September 11th happened, the reason for answering the how question can be answered quite simply: apathy. America had grown apathetic in its demeanor. Complacency replaced vigilance. This troubling truth correlates directly to what I saw displayed in my fellow college students: apathy toward what September 11th meant. Instead of being vigilant in their patriotic duty to honor their country, I saw students who would rather text or talk or do anything else rather than pausing to stop and actually remember—remember—what happened on that day.
Don’t use this July 4th as an occassion to engorge yourself on steak and bratwurst. Don’t use this July 4th as an excuse to blow stuff up in the name of patriotism. But rather use this July 4th to remember and celebrate what your indepedence really means. Remember those wooden ships and fleeing redcoats. Remember those burning towers and exploding planes. Remember those soldiers all around the world. Don’t dishonor them. Don’t go through the motions.
When you hear the national anthem, pay attention. Think. Remember. It’s okay to get emotional. But we should not succumb to vain repetition. Whether it’s July 4th, a moment of silence, or a singing of the national anthem, we should pause and remember the danger of indifference–the danger of apathy. Our world is not an impervious glass shell.
This July 4th, do not fall to apathy. The result is tragedy.