They Awakened the Camp
September 11, 2006
We gather here today for the same reason as we have gathered as a nation on many occasions during our history – to remember the sacrifices and honor the memories of those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, “gave their lives that that nation might live.”
And as Lincoln said, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so.”
We are met here today on the fifth anniversary of the attack upon the United States by a consortium of nations that financed, succored, protected and encouraged an agency called Al Qaida.
It was our generation’s Pearl Harbor. But in many ways, the attack of September 11th was far more serious than Pearl Harbor. More Americans were killed than at Pearl Harbor. It was an attack not upon (what was then) a remote and distant territory, but rather a premeditated and unprovoked attack upon our nation’s greatest city and upon our nation’s capital city. It was an attack not upon heavily armed warships, but upon utterly defenseless American citizens peacefully going about their business.
This atrocity set new records in the annals of recorded history for ruthlessness and barbarity and depravity. Binyamin Netanyahu called it a “wake-up call from hell,” and that’s exactly what it was.
Al Qaida is not some mysterious and shadowy enemy. It receives its protection and encouragement and support from specific national governments. It is therefore an agency of those governments – just as the fifth column of spies and saboteurs we confronted a generation ago. We went after the governments that supported that fifth column – AND ONLY the governments that supported that fifth column.
Like the attack of December 7, 1941, the attack of September 11, 2001 was a sneak attack that came with no warning and no provocation. Indeed, whether it was Japan in 1941 or the nations that directly assisted Al Qaida in 2001, the United States was at peace with those nations and in fact, we had sought peaceful relations with them at every opportunity.
And like 1941, the sneak attack of 2001 produced a brotherhood of heroes – common Americans who had gone about their business one peaceful morning, and in a few brief moments found themselves unprepared and utterly vulnerable in the face of well prepared, intractable and barbaric adversaries.
And yet they rose to the occasion. They resisted with everything they had. On December 7th, cooks became gunners and nurses became rescue workers. And they fought back.
The legendary courage and resolve of American citizens hasn’t changed. On September 11th, the heroes of Flight 93 took their place in American history alongside the heroes of Pearl Harbor. Their message was the same: that there is a moral imperative to stand up when our nation is attacked and to marshal every resource and make every sacrifice necessary to defend our country, and all that our country stands for.
Centuries from now, Americans will proudly remember the story of the young men and women aboard that aircraft as it headed for our nation’s Capitol: how they responded instantly to duty and honor and country -- and armed only with their bare hands stopped cold those who would destroy our nation. In his last words heard over his cellular phone, Todd Beamer asked – not just of his fellow heroes, but of all of his fellow countrymen: “Are you guys ready?” His answer on behalf of us all was “Then let’s roll.
The morning after Pearl Harbor,
We didn’t vow to track down the Japanese pilots and bring them to justice.
We didn’t worry about offending the sensibilities of neutral nations.
We didn’t lecture and pontificate that we shouldn’t confuse Japanese aggression with the peaceful teachings of Buddha.
We didn’t wring our hands over “Why they hate us so much?”
We didn’t try to understand their point of view.
The next morning, the President of the United States stood before the Congress and met his moral imperative as the commander in chief of our nation’s armed forces.
As the Constitution requires, he laid the evidence before the Congress. He identified the nation that was responsible for training and organizing and financing the attack. And then, as the Constitution requires, he asked Congress for a formal Declaration of War.
And the then we waged war. Not “sort of war” – not “a measured response” – not “nation building.” We waged war with every ounce of strength and fortitude and determination that our outraged nation could command.
Those who were in uniform knew that behind them stood the greatest of all democracies with every leader and every citizen focused on one goal and one goal only – in Churchill’s words – “To wage war … to wage war by land, by sea, and by air; to wage war with all the strength and with all the courage that God has given us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
And we continued to wage war until the other side could make war no longer.
And the result was this: on the fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor – on December 7, 1946 – the war had been over for more than a year.
Axis powers that had comprised the most powerful military force on the planet -- had been utterly and completely vanquished and their will to make war against us had been utterly and completely broken. Americans no longer faced the imminent prospect of sabotage or attack. On December 7, 1946, the American flag flew over the occupied capitals of every one of those rogue nations. Their leaders had been dispatched and every semblance of resistance had been extirpated.
And never since have we had to worry that those nations might attack us again.
When I think back to the spirit of our nation in the days and weeks and months following the attack of September 11th, I remember a nation that was outraged, united, defiant, awakened and determined to respond to that attack just as the greatest generation had responded.
They bore no malice to any nation that had not attacked us – but they were utterly committed to annihilating the governments that had financed and abetted and encouraged al-Qaida in the attack of September 11th.
Like December 7th, 1941, on September 11th, 2001, thousands of our fellow citizens gave their lives to awaken our sleeping nation to the presence of an enemy that has the avowed object and the demonstrated ruthlessness to wage war against us in every manner they can – and that has the demonstrated determination to persevere until we stop them cold.
Not win them over. Not to convince them to search for common ground. Not to make them more like us.
But to stop them as we stopped their predecessors.
The Americans who died on December 7th, 1941 did not die in vain. Their screams awakened the camp and roused it to arms – and because they sounded the alarm – and our nation’s leaders and its people responded resolutely and with singular focus – the world was saved from monstrous tyranny.
I remember the screams of those who died on September 11th, 2001 – as do each of you. And we are gathered today with a solemn purpose – to “here, highly resolve” – in Lincoln’s words – “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
On that battlefield long ago, Lincoln reminded Americans that it was “altogether fitting and proper” to honor those dead – but he also reminded each of us that it is for us the living rather to be here dedicated to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly advanced.
That is our debt to the heroes of September 11th, and to every generation of Americans that has come before us.
It is not for us to foretell the future, but the past occasionally casts a flicker of light forward. And if the past tells us anything, it is that the American Spirit that animated past generations to heroic deeds in defense of liberty and honor and justice still burns bright in the hearts of every American of this generation.
We saw that spirit ignite on Flight 93. We saw it burn brightly in the hearts of every American in the days after September 11th.
And we see it at gatherings like this across America five years later. It is here where the world can see the true fiber of American character. It is not in our leaders – it is in our people.
A generation ago, monstrous tyrannies misjudged the resolve and determination of free men and women to defend their families and their liberties and their way of life. For many years, one provocation after another was met with only half-measures, political posturing, irresolution and ineptitude from the great democracies.
They forgot that the American spirit is kept in the hearts of its citizens. And it was a big mistake.
Let the word go out tonight directly – not from our leaders, but from our people – from every gathering of common citizens across America and from every candle lit tonight in memory of these honored dead – that we have not forgotten – and that the indescribable outrage that each of us felt five years ago – still simmers and festers unresolved just below the surface of daily life.
The sleeping giant is stirring – precisely because of the sacrifice made by the heroes of September 11th.
Americans will put up with a great deal before they act. But if necessary they will act, and they will act with the strength and the resolve and the fortitude that they have demonstrated through more than two centuries of struggle against tyrannies far more formidable than the petty thugs and guttersnipes who now feel emboldened to terrorize the free nations of the world.
And from this event we can take with us this absolute certainty. There will come an anniversary of September 11th when there are no armed guards at airports; no Homeland Security scares; no fears over ports or planes or bombs in crowded places. Because when our nation is finally summoned to defend itself and everything it stands for, as President Kennedy said nearly a half century ago, it will come to pass again, that “we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”