The scientist Stephen Jay Gould was another distinguished scholar and writer who, like Lewis, lived through the events of September 11, 2001, and died a few months later. Like Lewis, he was sanguine about "the phenomenon of being an American." As the grandson of an immigrant garment worker who landed at Ellis Island exactly 100 years (to the day) before the hijacked 767s hit the World Trade towers, Gould released his feelings in essays of uninhibited patriotism.
"Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door," Gould wrote, while lower Manhattan was still burning. "And that door leads to the greatest, and largely successful, experiment in democracy ever attempted in human history..."
I'm inclined to believe that a nation's character, like an individual's character, reveals itself under pressure. In essence, 9-11 peeled off most of the makeup America likes to wear when it looks at itself in the mirror. The past 12 months generated more stress along the basic fault lines of America's identity than any comparable period since 1968, when the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy convinced many people that a nation divided over Vietnam and civil rights was about to split asunder. The Republic held, but a bad man was elected president and the United States of America never recovered the vigor, idealism and sense of purpose that graced our pre-Nixonian civilization.
Tested once again, America will endure once again -- one strain of patriotic bluster you had better believe is that we are a nation of unprecedented economic and military power and prodigious energy. But the traits we display under pressure, that define "the phenomenon of being an American," are not always the ones that Lewis and Gould have celebrated; nor the ones of which publisher/patriot Henry Luce, urging Americans to join the war against Hitler, boasted confidently in 1941:
"We have some things in this country which are infinitely precious and especially American -- a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence."
Yet we have straddled the most appalling contradictions from the beginning. The famous explorer William Clark was praised as one of the first influential Americans to show genuine compassion for the Indians. But his compassion extended unevenly to his worthy slave York, who accompanied him on the incredible journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. Clark beat York repeatedly, and refused his petition for freedom when they returned to St. Louis; Clark's brother once rebuked him for whipping a pregnant slave. Sophisticated Europeans, connoisseurs of hypocrisy, were nevertheless confounded by Americans like William Clark.
"You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty and with the other flogging their slaves," wrote the English traveler Anthony Trollope. "You will see them one hour lecturing the mob on the rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the (Native Americans) whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties."
America stands four-square, as it were, on its sacred birthright of self-reliance, human dignity, slavery and genocide. It may not be pleasant, but to deny the neurotic effect of this divided legacy is to embrace amnesia.
Sometimes it's painfully hard to generalize about Americans. At the moment of truth, when the sky was literally falling, when it was raining fire and corpses, hundreds of firemen and policemen performed with historic courage and died heroes' deaths that are justly celebrated. But at that same moment of shock and adrenaline, when many city employees were sacrificing their lives for friends and strangers, others were busy looting the Municipal Credit Union, which was left vulnerable to unlimited withdrawals after the collapsing towers caused a computer failure. An estimated 4,000 members of the Credit Union -- city, state and federal workers -- exploited the catastrophe to milk its ATM machines for $l5 million in overdrafts. Sixty-six who took more than $7500 apiece have been arrested for grand larceny; one, according to the DA's office, spent a windfall from 53 unauthorized withdrawals at establishments that included Joy Joy Jewelry, Bronx BBQ, Hot Booz Liquor, Foot Locker and the 216th Street Motel.
Three thousand died, four thousand robbed their co-workers, including the dead, for party and sneaker money. These were the New Yorkers Rudy Giuliani didn't mention in his speeches. And after a few months of keeping up appearances for the media, potential heirs of the 9-11 victims have begun to file lawsuits and fight tooth and claw over their shares of the multi-billion dollar Victim Compensation Fund.