I tuned into a broadcast of a football game this Sunday, seeking escape -- or at least a momentary respite from the overwhelming horror of the massacre of the innocents of Newtown. Predictably, the contest was preceded by a minute of silence to honor the victims, followed by a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem.
In the aftermath of the death of twenty schoolchildren, ultimately facilitated if not actually caused by our collective and cowardly inaction, the words of Francis Scott Key's stirring ode took on new significance. Written nearly two centuries ago, during the War of 1812, those poetic words were inspired after Key had been forced by the British enemy to witness the overnight bombardment of American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. At dawn the next morning, upon seeing an American flag still flying over the fort, Key wrote a poem called "Defence of Fort McHenry," which he intended to accompany music from an already-popular tune composed by John Stafford Smith. Now known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," the song was adopted as America's national anthem first by executive order from Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and then more formally fifteen years later by a Congressional resolution signed by Herbert Hoover.
Since then the anthem has become an opening staple at sporting events of all kinds. We've all heard it sung countless times -- but how many of us have ever really listened to Scott's words? The anthem is not so much about a battle that has happened, as many suppose -- but instead the many battles yet to come. How many are aware that, far from looking back, Key was questioning the future, challenging us to maintain our freedom and to emulate the bravery of the forces under attack at Fort McHenry?
Key asks us hard, pointed, future-oriented questions: Can we still see "what so proudly we hailed" -- our flag and all it symbolizes? Does it still wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Today, sadly, the answer is evident -- it does not. Instead of tilting toward the courage to act, we and our supposed "leaders" have retreated into cynicism and fear. We have responded to repeated gun horror with cold and political calculation, bowing eternally to special interest and irrational ideology. Our democratic "shitstem" is apparently so infested with money collected by pusillanimous politicians for the purpose of perpetuating their power that necessary change seems impossible.
Both President Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney were asked pointblank about gun control and assault weapons at the presidential debate here in New York. Neither would even engage the questioner in any real manner. Instead they each skirted the entire issue for fear of creating controversy and losing votes. Meanwhile our citizens get slaughtered with astonishing regularity.
None of us is exempt from the guilt -- or the responsibility for what happened at Newtown. What, frankly, have I ever done to make this intolerable situation any better? For that matter, what have you done? And President Obama -- what about you?
We already know you are good at talking, Mr. President, so you don't need to convince us anymore. Your speech at the memorial service for the children was typically eloquent. "Are we really prepared to sat we are powerless in the face of such carnage?" you asked. "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" But will you now, at long last, move beyond mere speech to take action?
We don't just need an Orator-in-Chief or a Mourner-in-Chief. We need you to lead us, to do something to stop the senseless killing... Take a risk! Spend some of the political "capital" you have earned. After all, you never have to run for office again...and you can't take it with you...so what do you have to lose? As you have said about protecting our children, "If we don't get that right, we don't get any of it right."
So please Mr. President, show us some courage and tell us -- have we kept our freedom? Does that tattered, star-spangled banner still wave over "the home of the brave?"