The ideals of this nation

Posted: Monday, September 17, 2001

The following editorial was published Sept. 14 in The Anchorage Daily News:

In his book "Lincoln at Gettysburg," historian Garry Wills writes of how the definition of an American changed with the upheaval of the Civil War. "American" became a broader, more powerful notion. No longer was it a matter of lineage, race, religion or even Western civilization.

An American was one who subscribed to a set of ideas, eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, legally expressed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Yes, there were hard, practical reasons why those who ran America opened its doors to the world - cheap labor for the cities and westward expansion, the fulfillment of a "Manifest Destiny" that was both glory and shame.

Bigotry gave ground grudgingly - to Irish, Italians, then immigrants from Eastern Europe, immigrants from Asia, to American Indians, to blacks, to Hispanics. And it's not finished, not by a long shot. But successive walls of bigotry have fallen. And look what all these Americans have made.

That's why the United States draws its citizens from everywhere on the planet. "My fellow immigrants," was how Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the Daughters of the American Revolution. People die trying to come here. You don't hear of many dying to get out.

On Tuesday, people of many nationalities died trying only to live and work here - in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on four hijacked airliners.

On television this week, we all can see the faces of the people working in the choking dust in Manhattan. Look at those faces, every shade God has made. We can hear the voices of firefighters, heartbroken family members and government leaders. Listen to those voices, music of so many accents, in anguish and resolve, all American.

You have to smile in gratitude and pride at a report like this: the FBI questioned and released three people found in a Boston hotel. "Released." In how many nations would anyone even remotely connected to suspects in acts of horror like these be behind bars, with no presumption of innocence? In how many nations would any poor soul who merely stumbled across the path of the terrorists be locked up for who knows how long? In how many nations would the man who rented a home to suspects in Florida find himself in a small room with grim inquisitors?

Not here.

One of the starkest contrasts of the week is this: The terrorists struck at a nation that, for all its sins and foibles, still offers hope and freedom, and offers it more generously than any nation in history. The terrorists offer nothing. For all their stealth, malice and diabolical spirit, they have no staying power. They cannot long survive where the best of America lives - in the light.

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