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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Use your 9/11 pain to combar complaceney

June 06, 2002

Now what?

Almost nine months later, the last girder is borne away and there is no work left to do in lower Manhattan on a 16-acre plain filled with men, women and machinery. A fire bell rings, bagpipers play their sorrowful laments and what began as rescue, then became recovery, finally ends. And still nobody seems able to say.

Now what? Where do we go from here?

As the work crews pack up, we begin to grapple with what is to become of 16 acres of sacred ground. Naturally, some sort of memorial will be built. Some have suggested a park, others a museum or statues. Still others hold out for commercial development because this is, let's face it, some of the most valuable real estate in the world.

What should be the medium of memory? Is there anything we can sculpt, build or draw that will ever do justice to that day? And if not, then what?

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Even in the best of times we are not the most reverent people in the world. Will never be lionized for our fealty to the brutal lessons of history. Time passes, passions cool, we forget. Not the event, perhaps, but the pain. The rawness, the nearness of the pain.

Sometimes I look back on the swell of emotion that accompanied Sept. 11 and feel a weird disconnect, as if it were someone else's nightmare. I suspect I'm not the only one. Back in March, I happened to catch "9/11," the CBS documentary. It knocked me into a chair and would not let me up. The program, whose cameras followed rescue crews into the heart of the holocaust, brought it all rushing back: the fear, the horror, the gasping disbelief.

I hadn't fully realized until just that moment how far I had traveled from those awful hours when all you could do was watch television and pray. It had happened without my even realizing it. There had come this distance, this sense of remove that was impossible to conceive back in the shattered days when this event filled everything and we wondered numbly if we would ever feel normal again.

But life, it turns out, goes on. This is a healthy thing, I suppose. Humanity is a hardy breed and no interest is served by remaining forever in the moment of loss. Laughter is OK. Watching sports is OK. Going to the movies is OK. More important, they are part of the process by which we ourselves again become "OK."

But jousting with the question of how best to solemnize and memorialize those we lost is also a part of that process. Especially insofar as the question applies, not to 16 acres in Manhattan, but to 287 million participants in the American experiment. Whatever monument is erected on those 16 acres will, I'm sure, do at least an adequate job of memorializing the atrocity that happened there. My concern is for the memorials that will be erected in 287 million hearts and minds.

Because I'm nagged by the suspicion that, as emotions become less raw, the events of that day become easier to intellectualize and thus, shrink. And we can't afford to let that happen. Not yet.

We need access to that pain, that simmering sense of urgency and outrage. Need them to fuel our impatience with political brinkmanship, agency turf battles and careerist behind-covering that interfere with the mission of frustrating terror. Need them to ensure that we demand of public servants a new level of energy, creativity and accountability in identifying and eliminating threats to American security. Need them because, if nothing else was clear after that awful day, this much was: We were complacent. And the lesson learned, at horrific cost, is that we can't afford to be again.

Everyone is looking for ways to honor the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11. I have no complaint with statues and parks.

But it occurs to me that the best way to memorialize a victim of terrorism is to avoid becoming one yourself.

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