Each year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets an imaginary Doomsday Clock, a device on which midnight symbolizes the apocalypse, or a global catastrophe caused by human-made devices.

For two years now, they have set this at 90 seconds before midnight. That’s not meant to be comforting. Among other factors, the scientists noted when they made their most recent calculations in January that “the war in Ukraine and the widespread and growing reliance on nuclear weapons increase the risk of nuclear escalation.”

We would add to that the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and tensions between China and Taiwan, as well as despotic regimes in nations as far-flung as Venezuela and North Korea.

Which is to say that Memorial Day will likely continue to be a somber event as freedom and liberty continue to demand the “last full measure of devotion,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, of the nation’s bravest and ablest young men and women.

The nation can do much to avoid war by remaining vigilant and strong, and yet national security continues to require the ultimate sacrifice from too many.

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Memorial Day demands a certain measure of devotion: a duty to honor those who offered their lives in exchange for our own ease and prosperity. To treat it only as the unofficial first day of summer seems profane.

As we have noted before, former President James Garfield — who would end up as the second president to be killed by an assassin — may have delivered the most appropriate remarks for this day when he said he was “oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion.”

Then a member of Congress, he was speaking at Arlington Cemetery outside Washington on May 30, 1868, at a time when the day to remember the nation’s fallen was called Decoration Day.

“If silence is ever golden,” he added, “it must be here, beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.

“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

Nearly 1.4 million Americans have given their lives in combat or in other military related ways since the American Revolution. Their sacred sacrifice puts today’s worries and conflicts in perspective. We have free and open elections because of their blood. We enjoy the right to speak our minds because of their valor. We dishonor them by treating members of the opposite political party as enemies or by threatening violence.

Perhaps the truest words in Washington are found etched into the Korean War Memorial: “Freedom is Not Free.”

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Remembering why we forever need to defend freedom and liberty

The lust for power, whether fueled by phony national emergencies, promises to rid the world of class distinctions or the need to avenge this movement or that ethnic group, seems to reinvent itself constantly in the world. To those who would hold onto tyranny, real and imagined enemies abound, and oppression is often the most prescribed form of quackery.

It is a measure of American optimism that people once labeled the First World War as the “war to end all wars.” Once liberty had triumphed over her enemies, the thought was, tyranny would be subdued forever. That brand of naiveté no longer exists.

And yet it would be wrong to ignore how liberty’s triumphs, fueled by each successive generation of brave men and women, have kept freedom’s flame burning strong in many corners of the world and here at home.

Certainly, the threats posed by nuclear weapons make doomsday’s midnight toll an ever-present lurker. But because of Memorial Day, those 90 seconds until midnight seem much brighter and less menacing than many would have you believe.