, Newburyport, MA

July 4, 2013

Still the land of the free and brave?

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Is there a national anthem that isn’t, at its heart, simply an unquestioning proclamation of the glories of that nation?

Yes, ours.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” famously starts and ends with a question, the only anthem that does so.

It begins, “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light/What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

In the version sung daily at ball parks and other venues across the land, the anthem ends, “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

The opening question was addressed to the first generations of Americans, those who fought in and lived through the war that gave us our freedom, the Revolutionary War, and the war that secured our independence, the War of 1812.

The second question is addressed to us, as it has been to every generation since the siege of Fort McHenry two years after the outbreak of the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words that became the national anthem.

Almost 200 years later and 237 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate today, we are still challenged by the question.

Is the America of 2013 still the land of the free?

Daily, our freedom is under attack at home as well as abroad.

Today, tighter security is in place for the annual Fourth of July Boston Pops concert and fireworks on Boston’s Esplanade. The new security measures include a ban on backpacks and coolers on wheels. They were driven by the Boston Marathon bombings on Patriots Day that killed three spectators and injured more than 260, including some who were horribly maimed.

Also at home, the actions of agencies of our own government, including the National Security Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and even the Justice Department, threaten to erode our constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment and other rights.

In 2013, is this still the land of the free? Yes. Americans have shown they still have the conviction and the will to stand up to those who would take away or restrict our liberty.

Is it still the home of the brave?

Without doubt.

Around the world, servicemen and women daily defend our liberty and are willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect it.

Again, here at home, just this week, 19 brave members of an elite firefighting crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were killed by a wildfire in Arizona that still burns.

They were there in hopes of stopping the fire and protecting their neighbors’ homes by clearing brush and cutting down trees that might feed the lightning-sparked blaze.

Most of the 19 men were only in their 20s — the job is so physically demanding, they almost had to be. Many left behind wives and young children.

They knew the risks they ran. More than 200 firefighters have been killed in wildfires since the “Big Burn” inferno of 1910 killed 78 in Idaho and Montana, according to a list compiled by the Wall Street Journal.

The Hotshots trained intensely to deal with those risks, even carrying heat-resistant personal shelters in the 50 pounds of gear on their backs.

In the end, the fire turned on them and they were swiftly overwhelmed as they desperately deployed those shelters.

Today, flags fly at half staff in their honor.

But as the concluding question of the anthem suggests, there is no guantee that the flag will always fly over the kind of nation bequeathed to us by the founders unless we are willing to stand up for the cause of freedom.

If we do, the question will still be there to challenge our children and grandchildren. Will they be able to say the flag still waves over the land of the free and brave?