I have told this story several times in this space. If you’ve heard it before, feel free to drop by. I repeat it because this morning is the twentieth anniversary of its realization. That, and that particularly haunts me today.
That morning in 2002, I woke up before dawn to join a journalist friend in Brooklyn, where we both lived, and follow an NYPD pipe band to Ground Zero. The NYPD arranged for one of its pipe bands to begin marching from each of the five boroughs, all converging simultaneously at Ground Zero, where the memorial service was to begin.
The only people who had access to Ground Zero were family members of the victims and government officials. But when we got there, a huge crowd had gathered outside the perimeter. I said goodbye to my friend and blended into the crowd to gather material for the article I was writing for National Review (I had gone to work there last January). I remember standing there on the edge of Ground Zero, looking at my watch, waiting for the minute when, a year earlier, the first plane had hit the North Tower. It was also to be the signal for the start of the memorial service at Ground Zero.
At this moment — at this very moment — a fierce wind was blowing from the same direction the plane had taken. It was strange. There was a hurricane far offshore, and this was its furthest fringe. Still, the timing was strange. That wind has been blowing like something biblical all morning. Signs, chairs, anything that wasn’t attached were flying everywhere. I walked around in there for hours, watching and talking to people.
After a while I got to the other side of Ground Zero and took refuge from the wind in Trinity Church Wall Street, the old Episcopal Church next to the Twin Towers. The Archbishop of Canterbury had come to preside over a memorial service there. I stayed for that. At some point towards the end of this service, we all heard the bells ringing from Ground Zero next door, signaling the end of name reading and this service. When I emerged into the street a few minutes later, the wind had stopped. I don’t know what time it stopped blowing, but I’d bet it was when the last name was read. In all these years since then, I’ve never seen anything online commenting on it one way or another.
I went home to Brooklyn, wrote an article for NR, filed it, and then relaxed. The phone rang. It was my journalist friend, a little panicked. “Come on,” she said. I’m taking off.
At her apartment, she led me into her home office and showed me something hanging on the wall. It was a small American flag, almost paper-thin, and very old. Judging by the number of stars on its lot, I’d say Revolutionary War era. It has been mounted and framed under glass.
And it was torn from top to bottom, right down the middle.
“What am I looking at? ” I asked.
She explained that someone had given her this antique flag several years earlier. She had it framed and it had hung on the wall of every home office she had since then, wherever she lived. Every day she was home, for years, she had watched him.
That day, however, when she returned from Ground Zero, she noticed that she had been ripped right in the middle.
No one else was home, and if they were, they would have had to rip the paper on the back of the frame to get to the flag. He was intact.
We were both, and we are Christians. The meaning of this sign has not escaped us.
Three of the four gospels record this event at the death of Jesus on the cross. This is from Matthew 27:50-51:
50 And when Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At this moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The curtain of the Temple separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. Traditionally, Christianity interprets this sign as indicating God’s judgment on the religion of his people, the Jews. I can’t speak for my friend, with whom I lost contact after leaving New York, but I immediately interpreted the torn flag as a sign that God had withdrawn his protection from America, in judgment.
But it was a very hard thing to accept at the time, and not just because I didn’t want to believe it. It was also hard to accept because America seemed stronger then than it had been in ages. We were the world’s only superpower. And we were united as a people like we hadn’t been since World War II. Yes, we were clearly headed for war in Iraq (the war would begin six months later), but it was inconceivable that this coming war would not follow our path. We were so powerful — and we were morally right! Or so I thought.
I remember sending an e-mail to Father George Rutler, the famous Catholic priest in New York, telling him what we had seen with the torn flag and asking him what it meant. He replied that he was hesitant to speak out, but that it was annoying to say the least.
You all know what happened next: the disastrous war, the economic crash of 2008, and the steady collapse of our country at the hands of this new malevolent ideology called revival. I’ve spent much of the past year in the former Soviet bloc countries, and the thing I hear again and again, from men and women old enough to remember the Cold War, it’s, “What happened to you? They inevitably talk about how they viewed America as a beacon of hope and a beacon of goodness. But not more. Now most of them see us as the country that is exporting destructive ideology, especially on gender, to their country, and behaving like a cultural imperialist.
And you know what? They are right. We have become Babylon. If the Soviet Union Was the Orwellian Evil Empire One thousand nine hundred and eighty four sense, what are we? Are we the Huxleyans The best of worlds version? A totalitarian dystopia of dehumanizing sex, pleasure, pornography and drugs? (Take a look at this piece by Leighton Woodhouse in Tablet, talk about how marijuana, which has become an integral part of American life, has become so powerful in terms of refinement that it causes horrible mental illness.) If so, then I can tell you the day even where I saw it coming: September 11, 2002, after a storm at Ground Zero, and the tearing of the veil of the Revolutionary War flag.
A caveat: right-wing European commentator Niccolo Soldo has argued that in fact, despite all the signs of decline, America is more powerful than ever on the world stage. But it’s a different kind of power than what we’re used to. This is a malignant unit among America’s elites. Extract:
I get a lot of shit when I bluntly state that the United States has never been more powerful than it is today. People will point to the deindustrialization of the United States, its opiate death crisis, its declining standard of living, its vanishing middle class, its crumbling infrastructure, the growing rift between the red and blue states and the collective collapse of half of America thanks to Trump’s surprise. win in 2016. All of these points are valid, but they also mean to get things straight.
To effect change (in its most conservative form, or a revolution in its most liberal form), a segment of the elites must come over to the side of those who seek change. The United States of today is a picture of elites united altogether. Bipartisan consensus on all Imperial matters is the rule, with intelligence agencies in bed with the media and Silicon Valley. Those who stray from “the news” are quickly driven out of good company, with some losing their jobs and becoming characterless. All centers of power (with the possible exception of the massive NYPD) firmly agree, happily conforming to the ever-changing mainstream narratives found in laws, in education, and in governance. of business.
“But Niccolo, half the country hates it!” Sure, but they don’t matter. Flyover America can rot for whatever they want, as long as the lights aren’t turned off in the places that matter. The idea that the people matter was easily brushed aside with the ease with which the Trump administration was toppled by the joint action of the intelligence/security services with the mainstream media, NGOs, the judiciary and various agents implanted in the current Trump regime. They then moved on to “strengthen” the 2020 election to ensure that such a flawed result cannot happen again. If it happens again, they’ll just subvert one more time, because they got away with it the first time and are still in the same positions of power.
It doesn’t matter to the elites whether Peoria, Illinois or Topeka, Kansas is growing or regenerating. This does not affect the concerns of the rulers at the federal level because these are national concerns which have for some time taken precedence over imperial concerns. John McWilliams of Greenville, South Carolina is as relevant to them as Jose Cortes of Arica, Chile, or Dieter Schliemann of Dortmund, Germany: they are all Imperial subjects.
Censorship plays a key role in this, as those with ideas that run counter to mainstream narratives and foreign policy goals and gain a significant following, must be anonymous to “protect democracy”, according to Max Boot.
Marc Andreessen explains how he sees this unfolding:
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Few dismiss the overwhelming evidence of growing conformity in Western society to mainstream narratives involving “the news”, for the fear of punishment for those who stray from these narratives is overwhelming, due increasingly precarious economic conditions in which most people now live. This makes censorship much easier, only serving to make policy much simpler to implement when opposition is either muted or completely silenced. It also gives the impression of overwhelming support for imperial policies and dictates.
Read everything. It is important. You need to understand where we are and what is coming. And take a look at this other essay by Niccolo Soldoin which he follows how America’s elites strive to do to the world what they do to their imperial subjects at home.
If you’re the kind of sentimental patriot — especially a Christian patriot — who believes America is what it’s always been, I invite you to contemplate the Torn Flag in light of the events of the past twenty years. I wish I could have more hope on this solemn day, but it is what it is, and we are not what we were as a nation.