None of us can speak for the dead.
Yet we purport to all the time. If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or President Ronald Reagan were alive, we might say, they’d totally agree with us on X, Y and Z.
No historical figure is left alone. Not Helen Keller, not Cleopatra, not Beethoven. We spin them in their graves for rhetorical convenience.
It’s tempting to wonder this Memorial Day, though, what our American forbearers would think of us — of how we’re behaving; about whether we’re honoring their legacies. Would they be ashamed of us? Are we fulfilling the promises they held so dearly?
We can’t know the answers, but they are questions worth asking nonetheless — in the reverse at least. That we’re allowed to do.
For example, how would we explain ourselves to the teenage boys who died of dysentery at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 and ’78? Would we want them to witness our petty social media disputes among such unimaginable largesse?
What of Crispus Attucks, the black man and first to fall at the Boston Massacre of 1770? Would we be proud to tell him about the current state of race relations?
Mary Galloway put on men’s clothing to fight for the Union Army. Her chest was shot away at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Are we worthy of her sacrifice? We can ask the same of the nurses captured on Corregidor during World War II and worked half to death at Bataan, Burma and Manila. Would we want them to see last week’s political antics in Washington, D.C.?
Would we want Ron Storz to watch our leaders trampling on the Constitution so unabashedly? Storz, an Air Force pilot from South Ozone Park, Queens, was beaten to death in Hanoi in 1970 for refusing to sign a bogus two- or three-sentence war crimes confession. He was tortured for four years while in solitary confinement, yet still he wouldn’t sign.
Is there anyone with that kind of honor in Congress today? Could President Donald Trump look that downed pilot in the eye?
We talk about our obligation to the future — without truly acting on it fiscally, morally, environmentally — but Memorial Day reminds us between barbecues and blow-out sales that we also have an obligation to the past, however imperfect it may have been.
With all the blessings of our era, are we worthy of the genuine sacrifices that were made for us? We should ask, what can we do come Tuesday to make certain we are?
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.