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Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Happened to Those People?

The memorials to the victims and heroes of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 will be visited by tens of millions of people from all over the world for as far into the future as one can imagine. Each of the memorials provides a unique visual expression of the magnitude of the loss and absence while also conveying a sense of permanence and reverence that hopefully comforts those directly touched by the lives lost.

Whether intended as a thematic group or not, the designs of the memorials individually emphasize different aspects of our national character that served us so well during that day and the months afterwards. The memorial at Shanksville utilizes the space and solitude of the area to highlight the actual point of impact of Flight 93 and the role the forty passengers and crew played as the first literal tip of the spear in America's fight back against the terrorists. The design separates that Sacred Ground area from the surrounding ringed walkway and provides an "inner sanctum" that will be kept off limits to everyone but direct family members. Limiting access helps remind the rest of us that mere familiarity with a tragedy is not comparable to direct experience with a tragedy. Since that experience of limited access isn't practical in a working building like the Pentagon or a downtown area surrounded by millions, the "Sacred Ground" area at Shanksville helps provide a sense of that intimacy and privacy that all of the September 11 families need at some level in such an otherwise global experience. The forty aboard Flight 93 may not have been the first to realize their flight was being hijacked but they were likely the first Americans to be given information via family and friends over air phones and cell phones of the true nature and consequences of what was happening who were also in a direct position to do something about it. And do something they did. Instinctively. Without hesitation. Without a single second to spare. Here is the situation. Here are the alternatives. Here's what's right. Let's roll.

The memorial at the Pentagon provides a powerful counterpoint to the memorial that is the Pentagon's own reconstruction after the attack. In less than a year, the physical damage to the Pentagon building was virtually erased by a massive reconstruction effort. Like a science fiction cyborg with the ability to regenerate damaged parts in seconds and continue the offensive, the rebuilding of the damaged Pentagon provided the nation a chance to prove in tangible terms that mere physical damage alone cannot keep the military or the country from pursuing what needs to get done. Erasing that physical scar within a year to the date of its infliction like it never happened provided a crucial reminder to the world about the focus Americans can apply to any problem. The actual memorial on the grounds just outside the Pentagon provides both a place to marvel at the symbolic invincibility of an emblem of American strength while simultaneously absorbing a visual reminder of the individual citizens who truly provide that strength -- even at the expense of their own lives when necessary.

The design of the memorial in New York City perfectly threaded a needle through distinct, seemingly conflicting needs of family members, a bustling city with a hole torn in its core and a nation that lost a symbol of its ingenuity and drive for ever greater heights. Anyone who visited the World Trade Center towers up close will tell you photos could never convey the awe experienced in person by standing next to one of the monoliths, looking up along the side of the building and absorbing the sight as the building rose up to the vanishing point -- as if to say America sets its sights to infinity and damn it, we're going to get there. The memorial design literally preserves the impression those towers had on anyone who saw them and the sheer magnitude of ambition the creation of those towers represented. At the same time, the design of black granite, falling water and names of those who died in black bronze produces something for the city unimaginable in the days after the attacks -- a place where the sounds of water drown out the normal sonic distractions of a huge city to provide a bubble of isolation allowing contemplation of the magnitude of what was lost, both human and physical. As visitors walk around the perimeters and take in the names of the individuals who died, the vastness of those footprints underlines the hole in the lives of family members left behind. At the same time, visitors can't help but look up from the edges of the former buildings and be reminded that they're still in a country that believes the sky is the limit.

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In some sense, monuments to the dead aren't really for the dead. They may not even be for the living. They're really for those in future generations. Memories and understanding fade and often distort over generations. The memorials for those who died in the attacks on September 11, 2001 are so poignant and effective at conveying the magnitude of the loss on that day that they ensure no future visitor will ever leave without asking one question:

"What happened to those people?"

What was going through their minds when they first realized what was happening? For those that realized their lives would soon end, what occupied their thoughts or provided them comfort in their final moments?

The answers are too painful and too inappropriate for the rest of us not directly impacted to consider. We CAN think about what happened to the rest of us.

Think about the teachers at P.S. 150, a school with 175 children located in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers. They had their own families and children to consider but safely shepherded all of those children through the black soot of the collapsing towers to safety at other schools to the north. Schools don't drill for "collapsing skyscraper and choking dust" disasters yet the teachers remained focused on their students, maintained calm and did the right thing. All in all, over nine thousand children in eight schools in the area were all guided to safety. While the children were off for the next few days, were the teachers off focused on their own families or watching TV coverage like the rest of us? No, they were huddled in other school buildings carefully and thoughtfully planning the experience they would provide to the children upon their return to the classroom, knowing that first experience posed a huge risk of trauma and opportunity for initial healing. They are EDUCATORS. They know these things. It's what they do. And they did it. Perfectly.

Isn't that something you want to know about your children's teachers if YOUR children are ever in a situation like those on September 11, 2001?

Think about the firefighters and police who survived the collapse and spent the next few days amid a flaming, toxic, hazardous waste site attempting to find survivors in the rubble. Think about the search and rescue teams from all over the country who drove non-stop to New York City to help in the search for survivors. Think about the weeks of exhausting hours those same teams spent after rescue became impossible and the remaining goal became recovery of those who perished to provide closure for their families. Sifting through tons of smoking, toxic filth for months and risking their own lives to do it -- even in pursuit of something as noble as providing closure for grieving families -- wasn't in the written job description of any of those who did the work. But it was in their character. It wasn't ever in question.

Isn't that something you want to know about the emergency responders in your community if YOUR family members are ever in a situation remotely like those on September 11, 2001?

So from the perspective of that future visitor decades or centuries in the future, what DID happen to "those people" in the past? US?

After seeing the thousands of individual acts of heroism, sacrifice and simple kindness demonstrated for MONTHS after the horrors experienced on September 11, 2001, how have so many reverted to increasingly divisive, "us versus them" politics in our country? Why have we allowed our political leaders to shift the blame for other unrelated financial disasters onto the shoulders of public employees in the form of layoffs and cutbacks to benefits and pensions previously committed? Why is there any question at all about complete coverage of medical care for anyone associated with those who worked the recovery at the World Trade Center? Hundreds of Americans put themselves in harm's way for others and made the right decisions without the luxury of time yet most Americans cannot be bothered to educate themselves about the social, fiscal and military issues facing the country when we have all the time in the world?

For those of us in the first post-September 11 generation, our most important responsibility going forward is to rethink our relationships with our fellow citizens, our government and the rest of the world and begin respecting the role all of us play in a healthy society, not just a growing economy. We need to ensure that a visitor to any of the memorials fifty, one hundred or two hundred years from now doesn't ask the question "What happened to those people?" in reference to US -- the post-September 11 generation. We saw all of those demonstrations of the decency and generosity of our national DNA in the months after the disaster yet have still grown apart as a people, eyeing each other as culprits for any inconvenience we suffer rather than as partners who can help solve any problem we face. We're better than that. WAY better than that.