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Remembering America's Heroes

As we search for perspective on the September 11 attack, we pay tribute to America's heroes.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

The tears are fresh here. The people walking slowly down the unfinished plywood exit ramp at the Ground Zero viewing platform seem lost in their own pained reverie. Eyes are red. Their glances toward those in line waiting to climb the entrance ramp are sympathetic and knowing. Trudging up the gentle incline, past the hand-painted banners from schoolchildren carrying the message "God Bless America," the gravestones in the cemetery behind St. Paul's Chapel come into full view just as the magnitude of the devastation becomes visible below. The platform's stark wooden walls, reminiscent of the black marble facade of Washington, D.C.'s Vietnam War Memorial, are filled with handwritten messages penned in black, green or red ink or Magic Marker or just pencil.

"We will Never Forget You. The Fleck Family. 12/30/01." "Paul Gilbey. I miss you so much. You will never be forgotten. Love always, Sandra." "We didn't know you then. We will never forget you now. Barry. 1/10/02." There are messages from every state of the union, as well as Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands, among others. Ignacio from Toluca, Mexico, wrote, "Hate destroyed your towers, but it will never destroy your valor or your courage. God Bless America." There's not a square inch of the walls on the actual viewing platform that hasn't been inscribed with messages. As you leave, on the last piece of plywood at the bottom of the ramp, the words of Debbie from Texas jump out: "It will never be over."

It's a cold and windy but sunny day in January, nearly four months to the hour after Al Qaeda terrorists flew commercial jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City, and the Pentagon, in Washington. Dozens of men, women and children pack the platform. Since the viewing platform opened on December 30, lines of two to three and even four hours long had jammed the streets of lower Manhattan, finally forcing the city to start issuing free tickets just to control the crowds. The quiet, reverential whispers of the crowd are nonetheless lost in the low rumble from the line of dump trucks carting debris from "The Pit," the underground cavern filled with the remnants of the collapsed towers where most of the work is being done now. The arched arms of cranes and steam shovels frame the twisted piles of steel girders and dirt, and the ongoing repairs to the facades of the World Financial Center on the far side of the site.

One thing seems absolutely clear; everyone here is seeking a place where they can come to grips with the horror, maybe even to discover a place where they can restore some of the solace that vanished from their lives on September 11. It's not an easy place to find.

The process of healing has occurred at a different pace for each of us. Each time I've felt some degree of equanimity about the attacks, I'll read another gripping account of someone who survived the collapse of the towers, or someone who didn't make it out, or someone who fought with the hijackers on United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Or I will feel the tears running down my face at the Ground Zero viewing platform, my breath labored, my stomach tight with anxiety. Each time, I'm reminded that all is not normal. Nothing is the same. And, I know in my bones that I haven't found enough distance yet to put my feelings of anger and anguish in some kind of permanent perspective.

Those are some of the reminders that September 11 has changed me. Forever.

Some basic things aren't different. After all, I'm an American just as I have been my entire life. But I'm keenly aware today that I had forgotten what that meant. It wasn't that I couldn't recall the words to the Star Spangled Banner, the Pledge of Allegiance, "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America," but I couldn't remember the last time I'd sung or recited their words with feeling or with tears in my eyes. I'd used the Declaration of Independence as a theme for editorials in Cigar Aficionado, but I'd used it to make points about personal freedoms, not as a foundation for my love of America. I'd never owned a flag.

Don't get me wrong. I was not unpatriotic. I'd spent too much time in Third World dictatorships to not have a passion for the cornerstones of American democracy: human rights, the right to vote, the right to our opinions, the right to worship as we please, the privileges of wealth and prosperity. In fact, I was a vociferous defender of those freedoms and privileges, even adopting a traditional conservatism about the appropriate, diminished role of government in our lives to preserve our precious freedoms. But like most Americans, I had grown complacent. It wasn't that I had forgotten our nation's core values, but I wasn't reminded often enough about what it takes to ensure that they exist forever.

That's where I first felt the differences, that first Saturday after the attacks, when in a driving rainstorm I set out to find a flag. My local discount retailers, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Target and BJs, were all sold out of American flags. I searched the Yellow Pages, where I found a flag store about an hour from my house. I called. The proprietor had a few remaining, but said people were coming in like crazy and he wouldn't hold it for more than an hour. I begged him to save me one. He said he couldn't promise anything. I got in my car, and started calling him every 10 minutes to report my progress on the rain-slick freeways. Finally after the third call, he laughed, and said, "It's put aside. It's got your name on it. I know, I know already; you're on your way." I stood in line as others bought their flags. When the next day dawned sunny, that 4- by-6-foot Stars and Stripes hung in front of my house.

There was the flood of tears that accompanied the first renditions of the Star Spangled Banner and "God Bless America" that I heard on television in the first weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Every time I've heard them since, the tears come again. Celine Dion on the televised memorial service that first Friday night. The Yankee Stadium service for the fallen police officers, firefighters and emergency workers. The first World Series game on television. The Wine Spectator's "New York Wine Experience" when Douglas Rodriguez, of the New York City Police Department, sent chills up my spine with his stirring performance of "God Bless America":

 

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

God bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

--Irving Berlin

 

I don't believe there is an American alive today who hears that song in the same way as he or she did before September 11. Some may argue that they were always fervent patriots, but part of the privilege of living in the land of the free was that you could be complacent; you could take those privileges and freedom for granted. But even those lifelong, fervent patriots can't help but hear the words differently, too. All our reactions are getting back in touch with not only what America is but we want it to be.

If there are two key lessons from 9/11, they are: we must remember, and we must never forget. That's why in this issue, coming six months after the tragedy, we're still focusing on the heroic efforts of men and women who put their lives at risk every day to make us safer. And that's why we're still asking you to think about the reasons you love your country, and why it's important to remain focused on what it is that has made America great, and what will continue to keep it great for generations to come. If I had any doubts about whether it was appropriate to have a story on these heroes six months after the fact, it was answered on that January day near Ground Zero. The lines of people. The tears. The pain in the faces of people on the viewing platform.

The crowds coming to Ground Zero, the millions of dollars given to charity in the months following the attacks, the search for ways to help, have given meaning to one of the phrases that have become a virtual motto of post-9/11 America, "United We Stand." Rarely in our history has the nation come together as solidly and firmly as it did in the weeks and months following the attacks. Pearl Harbor and President John F. Kennedy's assassination come to mind. "United We Stand" has been transformed into a statement of determination, one that our enemies underestimated. They thought we had grown weak, that our resolve to confront dangers and threats was so diminished that we would falter in the face of them. They were wrong. There may have never been another time when President Kennedy's words in his 1961 inaugural speech -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" -- rang so true and had so many people stepping forward to offer their assistance.

It's become popular to say, "Nothing is the same. Our world has changed." There is some truth in that statement, too. Up to now, however, one of the realities of human existence has been that we tend to forget, to push aside the things that we don't like to remember. There is a natural human tendency to look forward. Yet we have been forcefully reminded of the things that make our country great, and that make us proud to be Americans. We cannot, we must not, forget those truths.

By not forgetting, we are building that place where we will finally come to terms with the tragedy, a psychological viewing platform from where we can see the truth. It's a place we all need to discover, a place with enough distance to deal with the feelings and the emotions that were triggered by the attacks, at the same time close enough to always be reminded of what happened. In finding that place, we will begin to heal, and restore the sense of peace and balance that is so important to living. And, as we stand proudly there, we will always be a bit prouder when we say, "I am an American."

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