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‘A republic … if you can keep it’

The first weekend of summer, time for picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach.

To their credit, Americans never really forgot the sacrifices of those who gave the final measure to protect the freedoms we now hold so casually.

But their sacrifices were safely pigeonholed in a brief ceremony at the cemetery, a few moments of young kids scrambling to pass out flags in the sun — Memorial Day.

Not so distressing, that way. The corpses of the frozen dead at Choisin Reservoir, the massacred at Malmedy? Another world. Heroes distantly remembered, symbols conveniently abstract, words of some historic speech memorized and doggedly recited by the best student in the class.

That was the way it was supposed to be, the way we expected it to remain — through Sept. 10, 2001.

Of course, America’s independence was won because the French threw in on our side those many years ago. Benjamin Franklin couldn’t persuade King Louis’ ministers to do that till the colonials proved they could win a real pitched battle against British regulars — not just some skirmish against a sleepy mercenary garrison, as at Trenton or Ticonderoga.

George Washington couldn’t produce that victory — he was busy withdrawing from Philadelphia before Lord Howe’s superior advancing army, that late summer and fall of 1777.

No, the one vital, necessary victory was won by New Haven apothecary Benedict Arnold, not even officially in command, grievously wounded but rising again and again, rallying the troops from the front as his horse was shot from beneath him (just as he had that spring, during Tryon’s Raid), defeating an army of stunned British regulars emerging from the northern New York forest at Saratoga under the command of Gen. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne.

“What forces?” both Ambassador Franklin and King Louis of France wanted to know. Most of the regular Continental Army was at Philadelphia. What army had won the battles at Bennington and then at Freeman’s Farm, forcing Burgoyne’s surrender? Men without uniforms, came the answer. Yes, Horatio Gates and Arnold had some regulars. But mostly it had been American farmers in homespun, answering their country’s call.

Plenty of America’s heroes do wear uniforms. But as in all our wars, not all.

Todd Beamer, 32, was an Oracle Inc. executive from Hightstown, N.J. Jeremy Glick, 31, was a sales manager for an Internet service provider. Thomas Burnett Jr., 38, was a California businessman. Mark Bingham, 31, a former college rugby player from California. All four were on United Airlines Flight 93 when it left Newark bound for San Francisco at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

The plane never arrived. Terrorists armed with knives — all of whom had passed through the metal detectors and “shown their photo ID” — seized the flight, turned it around somewhere near Cleveland and headed for Washington, D.C.

After making her promise to call his wife and their two young boys, Mr. Beamer told the GTE supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, that he and the others — now aware, thanks to their cell phones, of what had happened to three other hijacked flights that day — had decided they were not going to stand by and remain mere pawns in the hijackers’ plot.

He dropped the phone, leaving the line open so the phone company supervisor could hear his final words, as he headed for the front of the plane to force it down in a remote strip mine area, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Mr. Beamer spoke for a nation.

Some hear, “Let’s roll.” Others contend he said, “Roll it.”

No matter.

After that, there was silence. Lisa Jefferson hung up the phone at 10 a.m. Eastern time, realizing no more would be heard from Flight 93.

Now Memorial Day has come again — the sixth since that Sept. 11. The bugles blow, laughing children place flags on the graves of the fallen, the surviving comrades of the silent dead squeeze into too-tight uniforms (could they ever really have been so thin?) to march a block or two beneath the flag.

Though these days, the dead are not all so distant. In that one brief moment, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett Jr. and Mark Bingham ceased to be “civilians.”

The men of Flight 93 went forward without uniforms, without orders.

They succeeded. And they died. As did eight of the first 70 Americans to take up arms to protect our liberties, in the first exchange of fire at the Lexington green on April 19, 1775, attempting to block Gen. Thomas Gage from seizing a stockpile of illegal, unregistered military arms.

Without uniforms. Yet surely they all earned their medals and their flags, that day.

“What kind of government have you given us?” Mrs. Powel asked Mr. Franklin as he emerged, at last, from the sweltering hall in Philadelphia.

A monarchy? A democracy? No.

“A republic,” he said … “if you can keep it.”

A version of this editorial originally appeared in 2002.

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