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EDITORIAL: 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.

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

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 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 over a cellphone that he and the others — now aware of what had happened to three other hijacked flights that day — had decided they were not going to stand by and remain pawns in the hijackers’ plot.

He dropped the phone, leaving the line open so the 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.

Now Memorial Day has come again. The bugles blow, children place flags on the graves of the fallen, the surviving comrades of the silent dead squeeze into too-tight uniforms to march a block or two beneath the flag.

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. 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 Ben 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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