When Angelica Paradise died in January at the age of 96, her obituary failed to mention an unforgettable moment in her long and happy life.
It happened on the afternoon of September 12, 2001, in the third-floor cafeteria of what is now the Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital.
One day after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, nobody knew how many people were dead or even how many were injured and in need of blood. The hospital put out an emergency plea for donors. Some 1,200 citizens answered the call.
I know because I was a witness — and I saw Angelica Paradise’s greatest performance.
Using a cane, she walked into the room, paused and surveyed the silent crowd. Then she started to sing “God Bless America.”
Without prompting, everyone joined in. The voices were strong and forthright, unabashedly united in the conviction that we, all of us, were the good guys standing up against evil. The last time I had seen an impromptu demonstration of patriotism this moving was while watching, of all things, that famous scene in Casablanca, when the denizens of Rick’s Café defy the Nazis with a rousing rendition of “La Marseilles.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, we lived up to the motto of E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”), though only fleetingly. Today, the unum part has long been tossed into a dumpster fire, leaving us with a boatload of pluribus — many tribes, many grievances, many selfish demands, many suspicions, and very little sense of unified purpose.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had 20 years ago with Daniel Fruchter, an Army veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor from Eastchester, whose annual message on December 7 was a Cassandra-like warning to always be prepared for an attack from our external enemies. “My feelings are very simple,” he said. “We haven’t learned from our past, our history. Our motto is ‘Remember Pearl Harbor/Keep America Alert.’ Have we been alert?”
Were he alive today, Fruchter might ask that same question, knowing that at the beginning of 2021, the nuclear doomsday clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. Chinese aggression, cyber-warfare, a porous southern border…the list of external threats is mounting.
Yet, our president has stated that the most lethal threat to America is not from “out there” but from within, i.e., white supremacists. And two decades after 2,977 Americans were killed by Islamic fanatics, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has perversely equated United States policies in the Mideast with terrorism. She and her fellow Squadsters believe we’re the bad guys.
Pogo was right when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” a truth that can be placed at the feet of pandering, opportunistic politicians of whom we have an oversupply.
In the current state of disunity, I wonder if we could ever face another national crisis as catastrophic as 9/11.
Traditional symbols of patriotism are now frequently deemed racist — statues, monuments, the national anthem, the American flag, and just about anything else fit for condemnation under the corrosive tenets of critical race theory. After 9/11, Americans proudly displayed flags, but this can be a risky undertaking today, especially if the banner is the Betsy Ross flag, which was briefly featured on a Nike sneaker a couple of years ago, until the woke police connected it with slavery and deemed it racist.
In this toxic environment, it’s not surprising that secession movements are multiplying all over the country and that the third-most-popular book borrowed from New York City public libraries is George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. (Numbers one and two, respectively, are two children’s books: The Snowy Day and The Cat in the Hat.)
In the current state of disunity, I wonder if we could ever face another national crisis as catastrophic as 9/11. The COVID-19 pandemic presented a test for unity, but the grade is incomplete, as less than half of Americans were fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July.
It’s a simple thing to get vaccinated. Dare I say, it’s the patriotic thing to do.
Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” has been leached out of the public consciousness. On this anniversary of 9/11, it’s time to restore it.
And think back to a grandmother who, when the chips were down 20 years ago, stood tall and defiantly belted out a song in a Westchester hospital.
Angelica Paradise did her bit.
“When I came in, I just felt so proud to be an American,” she said later. “I can’t give blood… but I certainly can sing. God gave me the gift, and I’m using it.”