September 5, 2011
As memorials go, it’s likely to be one of a kind. The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America will be solemnly observed, of course, but there’s no blueprint for the national mood. That’s because what happened that day is utterly without precedent in our history. And God willing, it will never happen again.
Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, counting all the victims at the World Trade Center here in Manhattan, those at the Pentagon in Washington, and those killed when their plane crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. All the rest of us are survivors. Some were more immediately affected that day, true; but all were truly stunned, just as they would be by the sudden death of someone in the family, or a close friend. For many, that feeling has yet to wear off.
Perhaps the upcoming commemoration will help to ease their disquiet. The principal observance will take place where the twin towers once rose, hard by West Street in lower Manhattan. It’s been heartening in a way to follow the progress of the site’s development: the steady growth of the splendid Freedom Tower, some 75 stories now and still rising; the twin pools that will remind visitors where the Trade Center towers stood and where so many died; the peaceful grove of swamp white oak trees, 400 strong--sure symbols that somehow life endures. A museum will open on Sept. 11, memorializing those who gave their lives that day and honoring all who selflessly answered the call for help: firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, citizens at large. It was a massive effort, matching the enormity of the moment, and one hopes the memorial itself will do it all justice.
As noted above, because 9/11 was unique there’s no format to follow. Perhaps Gettysburg comes closest, but even there the comparison falters. It’s true that the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, in the fall of 1863, captured another somber moment in the nation’s past, but the bloody battle came in the midst of an even bloodier war. On the other hand, the events of 9/11 came at us, figuratively and literally, from out of the blue.
One thing that did emerge from Gettysburg was President Lincoln’s stirring call for a new sense of national purpose. With luck, something like it will come out of the 9/11 memorial as well, perhaps not with Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence but, one hopes, with his conviction and strength. Admittedly it will have trouble summoning up all the family-related values that were once the bedrock of the country; today’s culture has eroded too many of them.
But there’s more than enough room--and in fact, even a yearning--for old-fashioned patriotism, the pride we should feel for everything to do with our native land. That includes, as the late Pope John Paul II once reminded us, its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. And as he somewhat significantly continued: “Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love.”
The tragic events of 9/11 certainly constituted that kind of danger, that kind of threat, and should be remembered as such. But as previously pointed out, the day’s sad memorial is still likely to be one of a kind. Let’s be sure it stays that way.