I love the “Star Spangled Banner.” It strikes me as the perfect anthem for the United States of America.
Not the full version, of course. If you try to get through the whole thing, you find too many lines like “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,” and “Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.” But nobody sings those verses anyway.
As it’s actually sung in its one-verse form, the lyrics are quite remarkable. “Oh say, can you see” the flag, the anthem asks? During the night, “the rockets’ red glare” and “the bombs bursting in air” showed us that it was still there—physically, at least.
But the weaponry can’t answer the truly important question—the question left hanging at the beginning of every U.S. sporting event. Does that flag still wave “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”?
That is, of course, not a question about the flag but about the land. Is it the home of those brave enough to base their society on the concept of freedom? Are we confident enough to live up to the ideal of respecting each others’ right to say and publish what we like? Or are we so fearful of enemies foreign or domestic that we’re willing to trade in our rights for a governmental promise of security?
When a U.S. senator suggests that New York Times editors be indicted for treason because the paper revealed a possibly illegal information gathering program (Louisville Courier-Journal, 6/28/06), and Fox News Channel hosts propose that an “Office of Censorship” be opened to make sure that news reports don’t “hurt the country” (Media Matters, 6/29/06), that’s an open question at best.
But I am glad that asking that question has become part of the rituals of patriotism in this country. Maybe once in a while people do listen to the words that they’re singing, and are reminded that freedom and bravery are not brand names, but elusive qualities that need to be sought after constantly.