Opinion: A time when America was brave

She shapes the question in a voice of rainy-day melancholy, frames it with piano meditation.

“All we’ve been given by those who came before

The dream of a nation where freedom would endure

The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day

What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?”

Thus begins “American Anthem,” Norah Jones’ theme to “The War,” Ken Burns’ magisterial 2007 history of the conflagration that nearly burned down the world in the 1940s. But if the song spoke to the crisis of that generation, its central question also feels relevant to our crisis, 80 years later.

“What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?”

Of many of us, they will say nothing good.

That’s assuming any memory of America survives to give them a basis for comparison. History is written by the winners, after all, so there is always the chance, if intolerance wins, if ignorance wins, if election denial wins and they shape the future in their image, our children will inherit an America transactional, small-minded and mean and never know that once upon a time, America stood — or at least, sometimes tried to stand — for something loftier. That once upon a time, America was brave.

If the hearings of the Jan. 6 committee, which ended Friday, have demonstrated nothing else, they’ve demonstrated how rare that virtue has become. Instead, we find ourselves largely a nation defined by fears.

Because he lacked the guts to accept his election defeat, Donald Trump assembled an armed mob to attack the Capitol.

Because they were terrified the nation is changing without their approval, that mob did his bidding.

Because they were scared of Trump, most of his party swallowed their tongues rather than protest.

Because they have not the basic moral courage one usually learns on the playground — lose with dignity and fight again another day — they are trashing democracy itself. To wit: The majority of Republican candidates for this year’s midterms reject or doubt the result of the 2020 election, according to The Washington Post. And just 42% of us have confidence in the fairness of U.S. elections, according to a July poll from CNN.

America is a nation of sore losers ascendant.

Such pusillanimity throws into sharp relief the acts of courage these hearings have shown us. Such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, captured on video coolly directing efforts to save the Capitol and continue government function even as she fled a mob howling for her blood. And Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger giving up their political careers rather than accede to their party’s pact of lies.

“Our duty today is to our country and our children and our Constitution,” said Cheney. She said this by way of introducing a resolution to subpoena Trump to testify. The committee approved it on a dramatic and unanimous roll-call vote.

Trump will likely refuse to appear, though one hopes against hope he does. This moment cries out for accountability. That loser’s weakness has brought America to a crisis as critical in its way to our continued viability as the one another generation faced eight decades ago. They had to find the courage to send their sons across the seas, to scrimp and save and bear unimaginable loss. We are asked only to find the courage to accept the truth.

“What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?”

Once upon a time, America was brave. Let’s hope, for their sake, it still is.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.