A number of years ago, 1982, an Air Florida flight taking off from Washington’s National Airport crashed into the Potomac River. A young government employee happening by jumped into the frigid waters (it was winter) and helped rescue passengers. President Reagan invited the Good Samaritan, Lenny Skutnik, to be his guest at the State of the Union address, where the chamber erupted as the President called attention to Mr. Skutnik’s heroism. Every president since the Great Communicator at every State of the Union has had at least one such guest, this year being no different. The honored guest this year was the widow of a fallen Navy Seal, Ryan Owens. Well, there was one difference. Opponents of the president either sat during the ovation for Chief Petty Officer Owens, or curtailed their expression of appreciation.
Now I am not a Trump supporter, and it has nothing to do with politics. I actually agree with more of the president’s positions than with Hillary Clinton’s. However I believe Trump is a disgusting individual whose very presence in the Oval Office demeans the presidency itself as well as the country. I also recognize that these honorary joint session visitations have become set pieces framing the incumbent’s message. Having said that, there is an additional dimension: the honoree is there in large part because of true merit. As much as I dislike Trump, I would never, never condone anyone desecrating the memory of a legitimate American hero. The chain of honorees from Skutnik to Owens represents the best of America.
The problem goes deeper than Trump/anti-Trump. It bespeaks a fraying of the body politic and a coarsening of political dissent. In much the same way, consider the police who turned their backs on Mayor DiBlasio during a funeral for one of the City’s finest. DiBlasio in my opinion is the anti-Trump: I believe the mayor a man of character but I loathe his positions and ineffectiveness as a leader. Yet the time to express dissent with the mayor is not at a memorial to a legitimate American hero.
One last example: athletes refusing to stand for the National Anthem, which is part of the set piece representing the coarsening of public discourse. The Anthem and the Flag do not represent political parties or ideologies but the country as a whole, including our history, which in turn includes those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us.
Nobody dissented more forcefully than our founding fathers in the run-up to establishing the republic. Yet they also challenged us, in Jefferson’s words, to dedicate “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” They did not add, “unless you happen to disagree with the politics of the moment.” So dissent, yes, but in the name of all that is holy, recognize that which is sacred.