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History tour ends at Ground Zero


I returned recently from a two-week vacation with my husband to the East Coast. We rambled our way east and north from Missouri through Virginia, up the Hudson River and through the New England countryside, visiting along the way with relatives not seen for decades and good friends. The weather was glorious, the colors dazzling.

Having canceled plans for a trip overseas, we made up our itinerary as we went, incorporating historic sites we’d missed or not seen for a long time. They included Monticello and Mount Vernon in Virginia and several sites in Massachusetts -- Plymouth, Lexington and Concord, where, on April 19, 1775, the first battles of the Revolutionary War were fought, and the historic mill town of Lowell.

On the second day out, I added one more destination to the list. My husband cringed but offered only mild protest when I told him I wanted to see the former World Trade Center, or Ground Zero, as it is now being called.

“Why would you want to do that?” he wanted to know. Not an unreasonable question, but I didn’t have a clear answer. Knowing that I would be likely to write something about the scene, I recalled those oft-quoted words of Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Long before we got to Ground Zero, the effects of what happened there shadowed our movements. We noted that tourism was down in this normally heavy New England season, along with other signs, more ominous. Along the Hudson, posters warned boats to stay away from Indian Point, site of a nuclear power plant. In Portland, Maine, and Providence, R.I., the Coast Guard was searching ships. The resulting backup was so severe in Providence that pleasure boats waited up to 96 hours to dock. South of Portland, at Kennebunkport, a popular viewing area overlooking the Bush summer home on Walker Point was closed.

“You know, we’re following the trail of the terrorists now,” I mused in Portland, where two of the hijackers had started their journeys south. From Portland we would make our way to Boston and to New York’s financial district, though by car, not by plane. We would arrive in the city on Oct. 11, the one-month anniversary of the attacks.

We approached Ground Zero by subway, taking the green line south from Grand Central Station to Fulton Street and exiting with a crowd far smaller than usually seen at weekday subway stops. As we wound our way out of the station, following temporary signs, I was surprised to discover that my heart was pounding. What would confront us when we emerged, just a couple blocks north of the towers?

The air in lower Manhattan was still heavy with smoke and dust, the mood sober, even reverent. Undeterred by Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s admonitions that Ground Zero was not “a tourist site,” visitors to the area moved from street to street, pausing between remaining buildings to catch glimpses or snap photos of the remains. Police were nonchalant.

From one spot we could see earth-moving equipment and gigantic cranes at work amid the rubble just a block away. From another, we got a full view of the still-standing frame of one of the towers, about six to seven stories high. Giant metal shards dangled from the side. At still another, we could see the burned-out frame of the towers’ arched entryway.

Some businesses, closed for a time after the attacks, were now operating in a semblance of normal. At one of New York’s ubiquitous Duane Read drugstores, though, several customers wanted, along with their purchases, information from checkers about daily life on these eerie streets.

On the streets soot and ashes were everywhere -- on tables and displays inside now-vacant buildings, blown into small mounds where buildings met the sidewalks. I suppressed a strong impulse to scoop up some ashes and mark my forehead with a cross. It seemed an appropriate gesture, signifying all that ashes do for liturgical Christians: remembrance and humility, death and resurrection, above all, transformation.

It was hard to think, as one who feels close ties to New York, of resurrection in the context of such carnage. Too many dead, too soon, too suddenly, too senselessly, some 5,000 who did nothing more dramatic on Sept. 11 than get up and go to work. Too many grieving. Too many questions unresolved. Shrines, memorials and photos of the missing were posted along the streets. One woman, held by another, sobbed in the shadows of the buildings.

But transformation? That was easier. “The world isn’t the same. Everything is different now.” Those thoughts had been expressed so often after the attacks. Among historic U.S. sites, the land the World Trade Center once occupied is sure to figure mightily. Sept. 11, 2001, like April 19, 1775, clearly marked a turning point in America’s relationship to the world. Already, history texts are being revised.

As many have noted, for this season at least, and for the foreseeable future, we are a changed country: more guarded, literally and figuratively, less focused on the stock market’s ups and downs, less assumptive about safety, and in certain ways, less free. Movies, even theater, many books, seem temporarily diminished, overshadowed by the enormity of the evil visited on us.

I was sensing a change in myself, too: stirrings of a deeper resolve. Though born of anger, these stirrings were accompanied by a conviction that our nation will have to go through a long Lenten period before the smoke will fully clear.

Though I bristle at any hint of blame-the-victim responses to the attacks, it seems paramount that, as we recover from shock and pain, we reflect deeply on our nation’s role as the world’s only remaining superpower, on our actions around the world -- actions that, while they do not justify terrorism, may, to the extent that they stem primarily from self-interest, justifiably nurture rage. Many publications, including NCR, have provided fodder in recent weeks for such reflection.

Though the issues are complex, though we will often disagree, we might begin the process by figuratively marking our foreheads with the ashes of Sept. 11 and ask ourselves where lies hope. Hope not only for ourselves and our nation, but also for a world that alternately loves and hates us -- less, I suspect, because of our freedoms, as President Bush asserts, than because of the wealth and power we often insensitively wield.

Pam Schaeffer is NCR’s managing editor. Her e-mail address is pschaeffer@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001