Several years ago, Max and I went to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. We spent the day touring the grounds, listening to recorded stories, watching the film of the battle as it played out, and seeing where thousands of soldiers sleep. I don’t think we said five words aloud. We were on hallowed ground.
We had a similar experience this past weekend at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which honors the 168 people who were murdered in 1995 by terrorists who decided that the best way to protest the government’s actions in Waco in 1993 was to blow up a federal building with people inside.
We stood in silence, taking in the well-planned memorial – 168 chairs, each with a victim’s name or two, in rows. The first row memorialized the people on the first floor who were killed, the second row memorialized those on the second floor, including babies in day care, and so on. An unexpected part of the memorial is the “survivor tree” – a tree that was damaged by the bomb, but now flourishes on the grounds.
We visited the museum, which is housed in the Journal Record building that, though severely damaged in the bomb blast, survived. There we saw films of personal recollection, listened to a recording of a hearing regarding water rights that was interrupted by the explosion, watched other films recounting the news coverage, and followed the evidence trail that eventually led to the perpetrators of the crime.
Again, we said few words aloud during our time there. We were on hallowed ground.
This past week, we have been hearing the slogan from the Vietnam War years: “Our country: Love it or leave it.” I remember hearing that incessantly when I was a teenager, when our country was sending our boys to fight in Vietnam and protests abounded. I disagreed with it then, and I disagree with it now. I do not love everything that this country has done, but I’m not leaving.
I do not love that men died in a war to determine whether people could own other people. I do not love that Japanese-Americans were rounded up, moved out of their homes, and placed in camps during World War II. I do not love that our history includes well-known acts of discrimination against people from other countries – for instance, “Irish Need Not Apply.” I do not love that people were beaten in the streets when they dared to demand their civil rights. I do not love that our countrymen died in Vietnam – a war that even its architect, Robert McNamara, regretted in his book “In Retrospect” and in the Oscar-winning documentary “Fog of War.”
But that does not mean I do not love this country. I spent six months experiencing how people on the other side of the world live, and I cried when I returned because I love this country. What I love is that we continue trying to get it right. For instance, we no longer consider it acceptable to call people names because of their country of origin. Some call that “political correctness.” I call it “considerate.”
Obviously, as the recent past has shown us, we have a way to go before we can say that we have created a “more perfect union.” But making it more perfect is our job as citizens. We do that by speaking out when we see something as unfair or wrong. Nothing is wrong with speaking out. Our Constitution’s First Amendment says as much.
I hope that I would have spoken out about the Japanese internment camps. I hope that I would speak out against a war I believe is wrong. I dare speak out now because I believe that speaking out against something that is wrong is better than bombing a building and killing people in protest.
Our country was founded by speaking out against government policies. Protest is nothing new here, and in a country where we value speech, it’s to be expected. What isn’t expected is to be vilified for exercising a right we all have.
We hallow our ground by trying to make our country better than it has been. Let’s not stop now.