Rudy Giuliani said the other day that he wasn’t absolutely sure the next morning, on Sept. 12, that the sun would actually come up. When it did, he was grateful. And so we are today, as we mark the anniversary of the day that changed our lives.
We are all busy remembering. A friend in Washington e-mails in the middle of the night yesterday: She cannot sleep because jets are roaring overhead, and because this is the anniversary of the last time she talked to Barbara Olson. Another e-mail, from an acquaintance: “Last year this time we were comforting eachother in instant messages.” Most everyone is getting and sending these messages.
I thought it would be flatter, this formal time of remembering, and not so authentic. Days that are supposed to be rich in meaning often aren’t. But people seem to be vividly re-feeling what they experienced a year ago, and being caught unaware, mugged by a memory. Last week a friend was telling me where he was, and in the middle of the telling a sob rose from nowhere and cut off his words. Yesterday on CNN Rosalynn Carter seemed taken aback by welling tears when she was asked how she had explained terrible events to her children when they were young. She told them, she said, that bad times didn’t mean God wasn’t there. Bad times meant God was weeping too.
Washington is marking this day with patriotism and a certain martial dignity. New York is approaching the anniversary with solemnity and respect. We are immersing ourselves in the trauma to free ourselves of the preoccupation. The great words of great presidents will be read, and some school children will hear the Gettysburg Address and the preamble to the Constitution for the first time.
A company of bagpipers will cross the Brooklyn Bridge, retracing the route of the hardy firemen of Brooklyn who roared across the bridge toward Manhattan a year ago this morning. Sirens blaring, they craned their necks to see the smoking ruins of the place where they would make their stand. For six months after that day, bagpipes were the sound of New York in mourning. They were played at all the funerals. None of us in New York will ever hear their rich and lonely wail in the same way again.
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What we are doing is taking a last hard and heartbreaking look at what happened last year. In time we will put the memories away, pack them away in a box with a pair of old gloves, and a citation and a badge, and some clippings and pictures. This is what Emily Dickinson called “the sweeping up the heart.” She said it was “the solemnest of industries enacted upon earth.”
But before we put it all away, there is a story to remember. There was a glittering city, the greatest in the history of man, a place of wild creativity, of getting, grabbing and selling, of bustle and yearning and greed. It was brutally attacked by a band of primitives. The city reeled. We knew what to expect: The selfish, heartless city-dwellers would trample children in their path as they raced for safety, they’d fight for the lifeboats like the wealthy on the Titanic.
It didn’t happen. It wasn’t that way at all. They were better than they knew! They saved each other—they ran to each other’s aid, they died comforting strangers.
Then the capital city was attacked, and there too goodness broke out. And sleeping boomers on planes came awake and charged the cockpit to keep the plane from hitting the home of the American president.
And then the mighty nation hit back at the primitives, and hit again.
This is, truly, some story. This is not a terrible thing to have to tell our children. It is a warm story. But now a certain coldness is in order.
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The sun rises tomorrow on the new era, the post-9/11-trauma era. We will make our way through the next year without the wild emotional force of 9/11 pushing us forward. We can be cool now, and deadly if need be.
This can be the year when we find Osama bin Laden. This, the next 12 months, can be when we deal the death blow to the Taliban, for this drama will not even begin to end until we have laid Osama and Osama-ism low. This is one case in which justice and vengeance are intertwined.
This is the year when the president and his advisors will or will not make the case, as they say, on Iraq. The president thinks a key part of the war on terror will be moving against Saddam Hussein and liberating Iraq from his heavy hand. But if Mr. Bush is to make the case it will not be with emotional rhetoric, with singing phrases, with high oratory. It will not, in this coming cooler time, be made with references to evil ones. All of that was good, excellent and Bushian the past passionate year. But now Mr. Bush should think in terms of Sgt. Joe Friday. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
“Saddam is evil” is not enough. A number of people are evil, and some are even our friends. “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction” is not enough. A number of countries do. What the people need now is hard data that demonstrate conclusively that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction which he is readying to use on the people of the U.S. or the people of the West.
If Mr. Bush has a good case, he will make it and the people will back him. If he does not, he will not convince the American people that blood and treasure must go to this endeavor. The people must believe, as Mr. Bush does, that their children are endangered. There was a time—I think it was Sept. 10, 2001—that Americans may not have been able to accept such an assertion. That time has passed.
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There’s another area where coldness is called for. The folly of what is happening to our airline industry is due to a wet and weepy conception of what is fair. People are afraid to fly because they see what a politically correct joke our airline security is. Searching for every last toenail clipper, forcing 85-year-old people with walkers to stand spread-eagled as some oafish wand-wielder in a blue jacket humiliates them—this is absurd and cowardly. Let’s get coldly serious: Arm the pilots, fortify cockpits, man flights with marshals, and profile passengers. We don’t have a transportation secretary who is willing to do these things. Someday when something terrible happens we’ll wish we did. Why not coldly remove Norman Mineta now?
Warm tears, honest remembrances, passionate tributes, giving credit where it’s due, absorbing 9/11, teaching our children what it meant and means: These are good things. And a little coldness starting at sunrise tomorrow: That will be good too.