Dallas, TX – A few weeks after September 11, our neighbor across the street dug a hole in his front yard, planted a 12-foot flagpole, rigged a floodlight to shine up at it, and raised a large American flag. His gesture wasn't born of the easy patriotism that led so many people to slap flag decals on their cars. He had two children at West Point - one a senior who has since graduated, and one who is a junior this fall. Our neighbors know something about sacrifice and service.
I see his flag from our kitchen window - which means I see it literally morning, noon, and night. The seasons have come and gone with that flag in the foreground. The flag reminds me daily that September 11 really happened.
I need the reminder, because most of the time, it feels like the attacks didn't happen. I hadn't expected us to revert to our normal lives so fast. It seemed like something had changed at first - there were lots of foreign reports on nightly newscasts; polls showed more Americans were going to church and expressing greater confidence in the government. Hollywood movie producers even held back an action film that had the standard quotient of gleeful violence.
But those trends didn't last. Politicians said the attacks were attacks on our way of life - meaning democracy - and Americans responded by voting in the same low numbers we always do. The time devoted to international news has fallen. Church attendance has dropped. Violent films resurfaced.
As a nation, we missed the moment when it would have been relatively easy to steer a new, more serious course. If we had been called to serve with the same relentlessness that we were exhorted to shop, we might have gained a new sense of purpose as citizens.
There were plenty of things to fix about our country before the attacks - blighted neighborhoods, an apathetic electorate, countless adolescents and old people desperate to feel wanted and needed. September 11th wasn't about all those problems, but it could have been the reason to tackle them with renewed passion and commitment. As a tribute to those who died, we could have resolved to build a better country.
My friends tell me I'm too harsh, that September 11 changed the nation in subtle ways that may not be obvious yet. And they point out that the president has promoted volunteerism in many of his speeches.
But if this is a war, I can't figure out what I'm supposed to sacrifice. If we as a people are being called to serve, let's at least do it with the same force as we fight drugs - with billboards and ads and information campaigns. We missed the teachable moment, but it's not too late. It's never too late.
Every day I see my neighbor's flag, and it makes me think September 11. What do we owe the people who died? Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. We owe them a country that is worth dying for.