I boarded an open-air bus at 46th and 8th Avenue yesterday afternoon and did the tourist thing, craning my neck to get the best perspective of the Empire State Building and heeding the guide’s warning to never stand up. Those traffic lights hang low when you’re sitting pretty on the Gray Line! It is so wonderful to discover a new city for the first time at ground level, instead of glancing over at the Manhattan skyline as your plane glides parallel into Newark for a bumpy landing. I’ve been through New York City several times in the past, but always as a connecting point, never as a primary destination.
I took some time off the bus at intervals yesterday, both to stretch my legs and to get a closer look at things that interested me. One stop yesterday changed me forever. I took the long, snaking, circuitous route past tiny stone churches and gleaming new construction to visit the 9/11 Memorial. Before I go any further, I will ask that if you are ever in the City that you make time for this pilgrimage to the heart of an American disaster.
The day was warm and bright yesterday as hundreds of people tried to figure out where to get passes, how to find the entrance, and tried to successfully navigate the security checkpoints that rivaled those of JFK. Walking in and around and behind and between construction of the five buildings that will once again make up the World Trade Center site (there were seven separate addresses at the time of the 9/11 attacks) was a challenge that left me a little impatient and more than a little disoriented. Where had the twin towers been? Where were the footprints I was looking for?
I finally emerged from the chain link maze that was the entryway chute, coming out into an open area with people milling about everywhere. I wandered toward the biggest knot of people and saw the South Pool. It’s hard to describe the feeling that I got on seeing that stark, simple, tranquil pool, water cascading on four sides in beautiful falls, then pausing to spread out into a flat, rippling pond, then running, as water always does, down, down, down, into a square hole in the ground that absorbed all the light of this bright sunny day and swallowed it whole, sucking it down into the earth to the place that is now the final resting place for thousands of people unlucky enough to be high above the ground on this very site those many years ago.
I moved closer and saw the names, hundreds and hundreds of names, etched cleanly through the hard metal of the displays that ringed the pool. Cut through so cleanly, so precisely, so definitively that you know the craftsmen that did the work wanted these names to endure here, at this site, at this shrine to freedom, forever.
Some of the names had beautiful white roses stuck into them, a stark contrast to all the black and gray and silvery shimmering of the memorial itself. The committee places white roses on the names on each person on their birthday. There were a handful yesterday.
The North Pool was a similar experience, identical but different, the same cascading water but hundreds of different names. Another black hole in the earth, stark and terrifying, but strangely calming as the water slipped into it, following the natural course of gravity and time. Another solemn tomb, another reminder, another piece of hallowed American ground.
A lone woman knelt, on her knees, just a few feet off the perimeter of the pool. Her hands were clasped in front of her. She looked skyward, in the direction of Freedom Tower, her eyes moist, her lips parted in what seemed to be a silent prayer or supplication. I don’t know her story. I didn’t need to.
It was easy to see the contrast between the simple dark holes in the ground and the fantastic, futuristic, gleaming, light-magnifying Freedom Tower just a few feet away from the Memorial. It was stunningly beautiful, rising so high that if you stood at its base you could not see the tip of the spire that now graces the top. A living monument of a different kind, this building, now 1776 feet high, tells anyone who sees it that we are not defeated, we are not down, we are not going away.
The bustling construction all around you at the Memorial is a testament to American resolve and determination, yes, but it’s much more than that. After all these years since the brutal unprovoked attacks on the American people by extremists who thought they could destroy us, we stand strong.
We are far from perfect. Our nation is facing problems and strife, both internal and external, like it has never seen its history. We bicker, we argue, we disagree, we fight.
But when the jackal strikes, when he collaborates with others and schemes to destroy our way of life and the freedoms that we all enjoy, we do not run. We do not hide. Like the brave first responders on that clear, bright day so many years ago, we run towards the fight. We run towards the need. We run to help.
We do not hide.
Man will always find a way to be cruel to his fellows. He will always find a way to ridicule, torture and kill those who are not like him. He will always find a way to destroy.
Thank God that man also has another side.
A side that can memorialize his fallen, grieve his dead, and then raise up a gleaming, living monument to the ideal of freedom that every man deserves.