When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz raised the notion of “New York values” at the GOP debate this week, he went on to explain precisely what he meant: “Everybody understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage,” he said. “And focus on money and the media.”
But that is not, in the post-9/11 era, what everyone understands. Certainly New York has always been other and apart in the American imagination, the “Big Apple” to serve as a magnet and a meeting place for those with big dreams and mighty aspirations.
Yet when the attacks of September 11 occurred, New York was very much the center of American values. And a proxy for the United States of America as a whole – at its biggest, its shiniest, its most diverse, its most cacophonous and, most importantly, its most powerful.
New York also came to embody the best of who we are as a nation: citizens from all walks, all ways, all religions united beneath the banner of the Constitution and our shared belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, banding together to push beyond the terror and to unearth humanity amid horror.
Men and women entering burning buildings, risking their lives and sharing their fates for the sake of the country they shared and the principles that bound them.
What mattered was not where their lives began, but where their paths had taken them: to New York.
“We've seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic,” President George W. Bush said in an address on September 20, 2001. “We have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own. My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our union, and it is strong.”
At this moment of fractured politics it is easy enough to find fault lines along which we are divided. But in the values New York embodies we find what is best in each of us as Americans: community, courage, selflessness, resilience, love across boundaries, spirit, determination, guts, grit and the ability to take enormous and devastating hits and rise once more. No matter where we are from.
Those who founded this nation would expect no less from the people who had the privilege of following in their footsteps and enjoying the benefits of the principles to which they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their “sacred honor.”
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield" (Harper, April 2015) and "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a New York Times best seller published in March 2011 by HarperCollins, about a young entrepreneur who supported her community under the Taliban. Gayle is a contributor to The Atlantic’s DefenseOne site, writing regularly on national security and foreign policy issues. Follow her on Twitter @gaylelemmon.