In the United States today, Tuesday September 18, it is impossible to buy an American flag -- all stores are simply sold out. Flags are in front of people's houses, on their cars, on windows, on clothing -- everywhere you look, small flags, huge flags, paper and fabric red white and blue, with no yellow ribbons to be seen anywhere. Stores everywhere have flags on display, have changed their letterboard signs to "God Bless America" and other words of patriotic support. Turn on any radio station and you will hear patriotic music, remembrances of last Tuesday, callers supporting the country, asking how they can help, encouraging each other.
Volunteers, money, food, clothing -- all are pouring in to New York and Washington DC. Blood banks are full, and have had to turn away countless donors. Nobody can talk about Tuesday without getting choked up. Last night the David Letterman show started again and opened not with comedy, but barely stayed composed with an 8-minute monologue about New York and America. Later on the show, longtime CBS anchorman Dan Rather, who got his start reporting battles in Vietnam, broke down sobbing while repeating a verse of "America The Beautiful"; both Tony Snow and Tim Russert were struggling to keep their composure during their short monologues on Sunday. Every newspaper in the country, from the most liberal to the most conservative, has offered editorials stating, matter of factly, that war has been declared on the US and the US must respond accordingly.
The government has spent the last week preparing the US for war -- that we are not simply going after one man, the struggle will take years, that it will take American treasure and American blood, that personal sacrifices will need to be made at all levels. The response? Military recruitment up; people, everywhere, from all walks of life, with grim seriousness, speaking of war and of the long struggle ahead -- not for revenge, but because it must be done.
Some people around the world may be wondering: what is America really like, especially in the aftermath of Tuesday's horrible attacks? What's all this talk of war, anyways?
To understand this, a little history is needed. America was founded in a revolution -- a war. The revolutionary war was not fought for money, or for revenge, but instead for an idea, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and years later in the Constitution of the United States, the "Great Experiment". This idea is, fundamentally, freedom -- that men are born with certain unalienable rights, and should be free to chart their own destiny. In much of the world, "rights" are something the government gives to people; in America, "rights" are something the government can't take away.
America also fought a Civil War. One result was the end of slavery; another the unity of all the states. The phrase "United States" came about after the end of the Civil War. Again, the war was not about conquest or revenge, but about an idea: about national unity, about humanity.
It is certainly true that we've fought wars for more self-serving reasons. But America exists because of an ideal, and it is ideas that motivate and drive us forwards. Americans come from all over the world, from all walks of life, and live all over the place (sometimes risking their lives just to get here); the opinions, traditions, and nuances of everyday life can change drastically from city to city, state to state. What makes someone "American" isn't their background, or their mannerisms, or even their language. It's an ideal -- about freedom, that you are an individual with individual liberties, that you and not a government controls your destiny, your opinions and beliefs and property, an idea that offers opportunity to anyone who wants it.
Normally this ideal and these ideas are difficult to articulate, and lie beneath the surface, as people just want to live out their lives and not be bothered -- to be free, essentially. Americans will argue with each other, denigrate each other, fight with each other...
But when America itself is attacked -- when that idea that is America is threatened -- everything changes. In an instant, differences evaporate, petty concerns vanish, and America is suddenly, truly, the United States, a united people.
You have to ask yourself, why did America fight in World War I or World War II? Certainly not in defense -- our homeland wasn't ever really threatened. What was it about Pearl Harbor that suddenly galvanized American resolve? Why in the world would thousands of Americans storm French beaches and die in the process? What would America gain by doing such a thing? What was there to gain by pushing an already defeated Japan back and back, losing more and more lives and material? Would you be willing to storm a beach, to die, to free another country?
Americans fight for ideas. America stands for freedom, and is willing to stand up for freedom and democracy in the world, sometimes alone -- travel around Eastern Europe sometime, and ask people how they feel about America.
At the outbreak of World War II, there were just five democracies left in existence, and many intellectuals thought the Great Experiment had finally failed. The proliferation of American ideas -- of liberty and justice, of democracy and freedom -- around the world is the greatest of human triumphs. Or do you consider the alternatives to be superior?
There are some, of course, repeating tired platitudes such as "Violence never solves anything" or "War is bad for children and other living things" in one form or another. Which is pretty dumb, of course. War never accomplishes anything? America itself was born in war. The world is clearly a better place because the US fought in World War II, and indeed, until the US exploded the atomic bomb Europe had a major war every 40 years, for hundreds of years. Furthermore, Japan and Germany haven't felt the need to do violence to us -- violence hardly always begets violence. In 1987 Ronald Reagan bombed Libya for bombing a Berlin discotheque, and then went on television to say "Go ahead, make my day" -- please attack us one more time, so I can do what I really want to do. The result? Not a peep, no more terrorism from Libya against the US. Indeed, from battlefields to school playgrounds, violence has, in fact, proved to be a remarkably effective method for ending violence and opression.
Most Americans understand that the freedom they enjoy today is because previous generations have been willing to fight, and die, just so that others -- other countries and future generations -- might be free, and not have to fight. In short, that violence and war, sacrifice and hardship, is _required_ -- the price of freedom.
And Americans have another trait: once they resolve to do something -- whether fight a war or put a man on the moon -- they don't stop, until the job is done. If you look at American sports, e.g. baseball, football, or basketball, you'll notice a few things. The purpose is always to move forwards -- the ball down the field, runners around the bases -- and to score, sometimes scoring big. There is no constant back-and-forth: someone is always on either the offensive or the defensive. There's always a plan. And you always, always, are moving forwards, towards the goal, to get the job done whatever it takes. Anything less is failure.
When natural disasters occur in America -- earthquake, flood, fire -- all enmity disappears, and volunteers and support and charity pours in in a most amazing way. Everybody wants to help, and people just can't help enough. Indeed, even when disasters happen in other countries, people and money flood in from America to help out. We had a major fire here in Los Alamos last year; Los Alamos isn't very popular with a lot of people, but the outporing of support and sympathy was, well, very touching, and still is. The current mood -- the resolve, the quiet strength, the determination -- is much stronger and deeper now than it was then. America is ready to get the job done.