View from afar

My first reaction the morning of Sept. 11 was disbelief. “What is this-some bad Claude Van Dame action movie being promoted on my AOL news service?” No, it was real. This was a death in the American family.

Two hours later, when I walked to my car, all of Huron Street blares as one common TV station, not the usual Spanish, Polish, Hip Hop and English cacophony. American flags start to emerge. A neighboring Mexican family posts a sign in their window: “We came to America late, but we are Americans.”

E-mails and phone calls create a personal roll call. “We lost a friend-he was a fireman.” “Lost two customers and a golfing partner.” “Dean is safe.” “I will be late seeing you this weekend-need to attend an alumni memorial service at Wheaton College.” “His parents are with the Salvation Army-they are exhausted from grief counseling at Ground Zero.”

Ten days later I am in a hospital waiting room of an intensive-care unit. A friend had a serious heart attack. Her husband and I struggled to call parents and friends and make sure the kids were OK. We struggled with collect calls and cell phones to inform and unite the little villages common to most families. This is the hard work of sadness and grief.

In the background a silent TV flickered with a memorial telethon. If we can barely survive one catastrophic illness, how are 5,000 other families coping, I think?

We cannot remain at Ground Zero for long. We try to make sense through words and parallels. I remember the death of JFK. Older friends remember Pearl Harbor.

Our president is not overly gifted with careful word choices. At times he sounds more like a Texas teenager whose pick-up truck side window has been smashed on a Saturday night.

“This is a crusade,” he says-and manages to offend Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Middle East who associate crusade with a brutal European invasion of their region.

“This is war,” he says.

Well yes, it will be a war-but more like the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty. Ask any high school sophomore about the results of War on Drugs; ask any ghetto kid on the West Side of Chicago about the War on Poverty.

“This is a battle between good and evil.”

No, it is clearly a struggle with evil-but it remains to be seen if we are good.

“Victory is certain.”

No, only that battles will happen is certain.

The judgmental moralists always show up at funerals. Our homegrown Taliban-Falwell, Robertson and Dobson-proclaim this is God’s punishment on New York City for being too liberal and tolerant, thus managing to be ignorant, offensive and wrong in one sentence.

Their own view of morality is not so different from bin Ladin-in the past they might have invited him to join their Religious Round Table.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who bleat that we are an imperial power and maybe this was just retribution.

“What about Palestine, Hiroshima, world poverty and slavery, and Native Americans?”

None of these folks can tell me how many more Americans need to die to satisfy their self-made cosmic scales of justice.

The terrorists seem to be a sect of Muslim fundamentalists who want to return the world to the 11th century.

Maybe Americans should elect a rock ‘n’ roll loving woman who is Jewish as president just to prove we don’t plan to return to the 11th century.

Terrorists are like pirates. They once raided ocean travel and found harbor in North Africa. Pirates were from every country and yet part of no country. The Marine Hymn “…from the shores of Tripoli…” makes reference to fighting them in 1805. Civilized nations united to stop piracy in their self-interests of travel and trade.

My heroes continue to be the tough, tearful guys of New York City carrying off the ruins of the World Trade Center in plastic buckets, desperately seeking their fallen comrades.

All our lives have changed-probably forever. But after a death in the family, we go on.

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