My wife and I drove throughout the day, going from Prague in the Czech Republic to Salzburg, Austria. I, along with my colleagues from the Acton Institute, had just finished a four-day conference on building a society that is both free and virtuous. We met with students from ten nations—mostly countries that are still attempting to free themselves from the tyrannical grip of Communism. As my wife and I were driving, we discussed those attributes that make the United States great, free, and virtuous. At the time, we had no idea what was occurring there.
After checking into the hotel, we went up to our room and I turned on the television to check on the events of the day. Although the language was German, it was clear from the video that we were watching the World Trade Center towers first in flames and then collapse. It was several minutes before either of us could speak. The sight and thought of passenger planes full of human beings smashing into the towers and then toppling them caused our knees to buckle. What would it have been like to be on that plane or in the office building as the two exploded into a ball of flames? The Trade Center is no more, and the Pentagon is significantly damaged. The loss of human life is staggering and still unknown. The loss of American confidence is also unknown and may not reveal itself for some time.
When my wife and I return to the United States later this week, will we return to a nation that is still great? How effective were the terrorists in their immoral act of destruction? Will these attacks cripple the source of our nation's greatness—our spirit and resolve?
The cowards who attacked our nation attacked the pre-eminent symbols of our nation’s unique place in the world. The World Trade Center is the symbol of the transforming power of free trade and the economic prowess it creates. The Pentagon demonstrates military might that provides a sense of assurance and security, at home and abroad. Together, they act as powerful and intimidating icons of what makes us a strong nation.
But are these the things that make the United States a great nation? Not really, although they are a part of the picture. Economic and military prowess can make us powerful, but it cannot make us great. Greatness comes from our faith in God. It comes from our willingness to confront evil acts without shrinking from the confrontation. It gave us the fortitude to fight two world wars and one lengthy and costly cold war. And such spiritual resolve was the backbone of our prevailing in those conflicts. Indeed, we prevailed because we made a moral case for the existence of a nation.
This spiritual resolve includes our most cherished beliefs about freedom and the dignity of human life, and it also separates us from those who took thousands of innocent lives. The enemy that perpetrated this attack may be cunning and powerful, but he will never be great. What makes American great is our heritage, filled with faith, spiritual resolve, and a conviction that human life is sacred.
We mourn for those who have been lost, and for the damage done to the lives of our families and friends. We know that such things as the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will not now, nor ever, challenge the greatness of our nation. For the greatness of our nation is not built on bricks and mortar; but rather, it is carried in the hearts of all people of goodwill. No terrorist—no matter how heinous his act—can take this greatness away.
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