Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Americans’ collective cry of anguish following the incomprehensible Sandy Hook school rampage has a special resonance this holiday season, four years into our devastating recession. Pundits are making the carnage in the ironically named “new” town the latest symbol of our troubles: our ugly politics, our vulgar culture, our frail economy, our frayed families, our strained psyches, our fragile society. Once again, we ask, is this what the American democratic experiment has wrought?
In burying these twenty pure children and their six noble adult protectors, we fear we are interring America’s innocence, that we have descended into a new state of irredeemable sin. America has long been the land of happy endings, a place so optimistic and romantic we could transform Europe’s dark, Grimm Fairy Tales into happy-dappy, technicolor Disney movies. But in our collective sense of guilt and inadequacy -- even when it was yet another lone crazed gunman -- him not us -- lies national salvation. Feeling responsible can redeem not just humiliate.
As a novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages, the United States has frequently inspired and frequently disappointed its citizens and fans. The Declaration of Independence combined a sober legal indictment of King George with a messianic call for national virtue, banking on “the rectitude of our intentions.” And during the Revolution, American patriots paraded their virtue by wearing homespun clothing, rejecting European decadence, wearing their commitments to this redemptive revolutionary vision on their no-longer-so-elegant sleeves.
Decades later, Abraham Lincoln’s oratorical grandeur as the national preacher helped Northerners work through their guilt of tolerating slavery then unleashing a mass slaughter to stop it. Thanks to Lincoln’s words, and his martyrdom, Americans emerged from the great Civil War with their sense of innocence intact, despite the mass carnage, with over 600,000 killed.
That naïve sense of American virtue persisted despite being severely tested through two world wars, the self-doubts of the Great Depression, and America’s affront to humanity in radiating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his high-toned Four Freedoms to trump Nazi evil, followed by Harry Truman with his plainspoken justification "I want the Jap war won," restored Americans’ messianic sense of themselves.
Two simultaneous postwar ruptures threatened Americans’ seemingly ever-renewable sense of purity. The rebellions of the 1960s undermined Americans’ collective self-confidence, especially among the American elites who saw American racism, sexism, and class conflict as defining sins. Just as America started fixing these abuses, many lost faith in their country’s ability to do just that. Meanwhile, the great crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s violated many Americans' sense of personal security while raising doubts about the goodness of American individuals -- and humanity itself. Traditional liberals fighting New Left nihilism warned against this "failure of nerve" -- and loss of hope.
Ronald Reagan eventually came to town in the 1980s, singing a new patriotic song, spurring Americans to make their country a "shining 'city upon a hill.'" From across the aisle, both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns echoed that redemptive sense of hope. Americans swooned right then left when enticed with that vision.
This vision’s reforming, regenerative, power is a force energized by Americans' Western values, Christian roots, democratic mechanisms, and continental brawn. It is America’s cleanest renewable energy source. And it is the wellspring of the faith the grieving families, the scarred new-town, and our traumatized country must summon once again, aware that we risk being disappointed again, but unwilling to be paralyzed by self-loathing or self-doubt. We have no choice but to believe again, to heal.
When what then appeared to be a lone crazed gunman killed John F. Kennedy, the heartbroken journalist Mary McGrory sighed, "We’ll never laugh again." A Kennedy administration staffer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan replied, "We’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again." A decade later, in 1975, Moynihan became an American icon when by standing up as America’s UN ambassador against the General Assembly’s Zionism is racism resolution, he galvanized the nation, showing how to stand nobly, courageously, for justice. This redemptive moment echoed the freedom-loving Patrick Henry’s "give me liberty or give me death" speech, amplified the fury of Franklin Roosevelt’s "day of infamy" address, and anticipated the optimistic nationalism of Reagan’s "morning in America" and Obama’s "Yes we can."
The Newtown slaughter of six-year-olds has aged us all. But Moynihan was right. Our encounter with evil must not rob us of our zest for life, or our faith in ourselves. We need to hope again, knowing that the restoration, while redemptive, portends yet another loss of innocence.