It seems to me that the words of our political leaders have always fallen short against the tragedy of the September 11 terrorist attack. In the days immediately afterwards, elected leaders offered words of comfort and calls to unity, but they seemed dwarfed by the enormity of the horror, and none are remembered today. It was easier to invoke the words of others, either from scripture or from familiar leaders like Lincoln and Roosevelt, who rallied the nation in times of hardship and war.
The speeches the tenth anniversary of the attack likewise fell short. Even the eloquence of President Obama did little more than say what others had said before. He was no match against the enormous emptiness the towers left behind, a potent symbol of so much unfinished business.
It makes Lincoln’s Gettysburg address seem an even more remarkable achievement. Lincoln’s speech was given during a highly uncertain time as well, just a few months after a battle that claimed some 50,000 lives and with the war still raging. And yet he made a stirring call to the nation to rededicate itself to democracy and a “new birth of freedom.”
The speech is such a contrast to those we hear today. (It was also a contrast to conventional speech-making then, when orations could last hours.) Lincoln’s remarks were brief – barely two minutes – and paced by a rhythm that magnified the power of his words. It was a speech meant to be spoken and heard. Today’s speeches seem meant to be read or seen – and most are quickly forgotten.
The one bright spot among today’s 9/11 speeches was that of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who spoke at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. His remarks focused on the unique heroism of the passengers, who overwhelmed their hijackers and crashed the plane before it could reach its target in Washington. His words were thoughtful, heartfelt, and, like Lincoln’s, a reminder that sacrifice for the greater good is both honorable and vital for democracy.