The United States has from its inception seen itself as something new. But populism—the politics of nostalgia—has a long history here. And the nation's capital is, among other things, a Necropolis—a site for the memorialization of the dead.
How a nation memorializes the dead matters, not least by revealing what it lives for. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial tells us that the dead are to be remembered by name. So does the Oklahoma City National Memorial, whose 168 chairs represent the individuals taken by terror on April 19, 1995.
The memorials we are now building out of the ashes of 9/11 tell us something about the United States, too, as does the Ground Zero site itself, which is why the recent scuffle over whether there is to be a mosque in the vicinity is a matter not just for the Tea Party spokespeople who oppose it or the New York City community board that voted 29-1 to support it. It is a matter for all Americans, and the questions it calls are two.