This past September 11, I celebrated Mass at a nearby Catholic high school. Speaking to those young people about the events of 9/11 reminded me of how my father would speak about his experiences in World War II.
His memories were vivid — so vivid that a plane passing overhead would make him start to dive under the nearest table. This was a reaction I could hardly understand, since World War II seemed like ancient history to me.
Just so did the events of 9/11 seem to those students, most of whom weren’t even born in 2001. However, it wasn’t the kids’ reactions to my talk that took me by surprise, but rather those of some adults present.
In my homily I reflected on the wondrous sense of national unity that embraced the country on that terrible day 17 years ago. I contrasted how the nation had come together then with the sense of division so palpable now.
I focused on the NFL kneeling protests, pointing out how businesses — Nike in particular — are attempting to capitalize on the divisiveness implied by these public refusals to honor the anthem and flag.
Our national symbols have been used as elements of protest before, and you could have a lively debate over whether, or under what circumstances, that’s appropriate. But it would be hard to justify the commercial exploitation evident in Nike’s decision to select Colin Kaepernick, prime mover of kneeling protests, as the face of its latest “Just Do It!” ad campaign.
After Mass, I was quite surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to hear my remarks referred to as “incendiary” by some school officials. But such is the ideological tension — indeed, the divisiveness — present even in Catholic schools.
It’s certainly true that many years have passed since we lost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, including police, fire and other first responders. The same is true for the lives lost at the Pentagon and in that plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. The immediacy of all those tragic deaths would naturally fade over time.
What shouldn’t fade, though, is our awareness that this was an attack, not on clusters of individuals, but on the nation as a whole. And given that it was inspired by a strain of religious radicalism that has long been antagonistic toward Judeo-Christian Civilization, it was an attack on our national identity as well.
In a very real sense, Colin Kaepernick and his fellow kneelers, by disrespecting the anthem and flag, are also attacking our national identity. I recognize that there are plenty of people who support them, and they can make their own case for why they believe such protests are justified.
But why would a company whose presumed goal is to sell shoes and sports gear to the widest possible market risk alienating a large portion of its customer base?
No doubt Nike gains in awareness from the spotlight of short-term publicity. Controversy does that. But what calculations have Nike’s executives made that suggest this will benefit them in the long run? How do they gain from standing against unity?
I was not in New York on 9/11, but I attended several funerals in which the only physical presence of the deceased consisted of bones or a few teeth, so thoroughly were the bodies destroyed. Later I visited the disaster site, by then reduced largely to a hole in the ground.
I remember the smell: the lingering smell of smoke, and the smell of evil. I also remember watching firemen and construction workers kneeling before the cross that emerged from the rubble. Two steel beams had melted together from the intense heat of the inferno in which the buildings came down.
That’s a memory I cherish.
Sad to say, it didn’t take long for politics to put a huge strain on the sense of national unity we felt on 9/11. But by God’s grace, and calling upon the heritage of our Judeo-Christian Civilization, the nation came through that horror, just as it had come through World War II.
Thus, Colin Kaepernick and his fellows are able to stage their protests; Nike can make dubious choices about advertisements that celebrate divisiveness; and certain Catholic school officials can complain about my “incendiary” remarks.
The nation is still free.
God bless America.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues. His writings appear in numerous publications and online journals.