LaFeber gives remarks at National Day of Prayer and Remembrance

The following is the text of remarks by Walter LaFeber, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History, on Sept. 14, 2011, the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, at Cornell University:

These past days of remembrance and prayer have, tragically but necessarily, been interrupted by constant declarations that we are now in a new war - the first war, as it is being called, of the 21st century. We as a people, as well as a government, should on this day of remembrance, remember why this war will be fought. We should remember, as well as mortals are able, why thousands have already died in this war, and why many more will lose their lives in the immediate future because of this war.

We remember, when we must, that the United States is the world's most powerful nation: militarily strong while others feel defenseless; rich, while others are poor; often culturally dominant, while others fear the loss of their ancient traditions. We should remember from the study of a long history that these disparities will inevitably change. If we are fortunate, wise, and remember, we will help guide that change, rather than having changes imposed on us. We remember that Founders of this country rightly warned that a republic cannot be both ignorant and free. Two hundred years later, in a time of instant mass communication and disappearing borders, we remember that this insight means that we cannot be both ignorant of other peoples and remain free; that we cannot be intolerant of great cultures and races with which we share a shrinking planet and remain free; and that we cannot surrender centuries-old constitutional principles, especially in checks on each branch of government, and remain free.

Not for the first time in the lives of many of us here, we are told that this must be a new kind of war, because we are now in a new world. In many important ways, we are in a new world. We who can, or who have studied the history, remember that we were in a new world with the end of the Cold War in 1991, and so were we in a new world with the instant deaths of 140,000 people at the dawn of the atomic age in 1945. But in this new world of 2001, we remember that certain fundamentals, tested over time, must remain, so they can provide the guideposts, and the protection, that each of us requires in a new world. And we remember, above all, that these fundamentals are the precise reasons why we are fighting this new war. We remember that every American community, but especially the university and the government, has had the sacred responsibility to reveal, to protect, yet to continue to test those fundamentals of our freedom.

As we mourn the victims of the September 11th tragedies, we can fall too easily and unconsciously into grieving as well for the passing of a certain American innocence and supposed security. We must therefore always mourn these victims of the new war - and we must remember them, not least because they warn us that innocence, and ignorance of others, have no place in the new world where technology makes these others our neighbors; and because we remember that their deaths will have been in vain if they result in a war, which will necessarily be long and costly, in which we do not remember the fundamental values of our individual rights, and our individual obligations to a larger community, for which we fight this new war, for which so many have died, and for which others will give their lives.

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