A Sad Commemoration

Most surviving persons of my parents' generation remember what they were doing when they received the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In my earliest years as a student the anniversary, then twenty-some years in the past, was mentioned every year. In the years since the milestones are generally marked by quick mentions on the nightly news. Many people who were alive then have passed on. The American response was to declare war on Japan, and it was over in August 1945, three years and nine months later.

Today is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four airplanes were deliberately crashed, three of them into heavily populated buildings. Millions of people saw the events unfold live on TV. I will never forget seeing the damage done to the Pentagon. This is the first year that the anniversary has fallen on a Tuesday, the same day of the week as the attacks. Each year has been marked by lengthy commemorative ceremonies in New York, including the names of all those who perished in the World Trade Center, the scene with the most casualties. Some have suggested that it is time to scale back, especially now that the man who helped calm the city is now running for President. Having him speak at the ceremony would be, many - including myself -
say, inappropriate, turning a still-fresh and painful memory into political opportunity for his major claim to fame.

Moments of silence and/or tolling of church bells have been suggested, along with a brief ceremony of remembrance. This has been supported by residents of the city who lost no one in the attacks, who say they are suffering from 9/11 fatigue; as well as by some of the family members of the deceased, who wish to turn their grief into something less public. Others say they want the somber and lengthy ceremonies to continue indefinitely.

The healing has begun. The morning news shows carried on as usual. There were no interruptions in the broadcast to televise the reading of the somber names of the dead. This is a natural progression as this day becomes part of history. I wish I could say that the American response to the 9/11 attacks was the same as that to Pearl Harbor, that after a difficult fight with many casualties our country eventually kicked the ass of our enemy, but the war we declared afterward still goes on nearly six years later, with no end in sight, and a death toll that rivals the number of lives lost that terrible day.

One thing is certain: Eventually the public commemoration will be scaled back. This is a natural progression, and, many psychologists say, a healthy one. The Challenger explosion is usually mentioned in passing on its anniversary. The observance of the national tragedy that I have only the dimmest memories of, the assasination of President Kennedy, is also mentioned in passing, has diminished, with more coverage likely to come on the fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The decrease in attention was fine with President Kennedy's family, who prefers to mark the anniversary of his birth with the Profile in Courage award.

For unknown reasons, the tragedy that held the record for the most lives lost in the history of New York City prior to 9/11 cannot even be named by most people. This was not the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (146 young women died), but the 1904 fire that broke out on the steamship General Slocum as it cruised up the East River, full of German immigrants, mostly women and children, on a church outing. Out of 1,300 people who boarded the boat, 1,021 of them were killed. By the 1920s the anniversary of that day had been largely forgotten, was marked only by a small ceremony in a Lutheran cemetery, having been overshadowed by the attention given to the sinking of the Titanic (expect a big tribute to those victims on the 100th anniversary in 2012) . And forget about the home-grown terrorism that occurred in Oklahoma City in 1995. I've always felt that those people were short-changed, because the people behind that attack were freckle-faced white boys. No sense of national outrage there. No huge payouts to the families of those who died, some of whom lost their homes after suffering financial hardships. And the story itself usually placed second on the evening news to the O.J. Simpson case, like two people dead is more newsworthy or outrageous than 168. Finally, we've all seen how much work remains to be done in New Orleans two years after Katrina. If that flood damage had occurred someplace like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it would have been restored, bigger and better, long ago. Only in America.

As the evening news and documentaries recall the horrible events of that Tuesday morning six years ago, I will say a prayer for the souls of those who died and for the ongoing struggles of those who suffered permanent injuries, and for those whose lives forever changed that day, for whatever reason. I will hope for an end to this seemingly endless war.

And I will also give thanks for the proof that life does go on: My granddaughter, who was born one year ago today.


Donna D said...

I still remember the chill I got hearing about the Oklahoma bombing. The initial report was it was gas explosion, then we learned the horrifying truth. I still remember the images of the children being pulled from the wreckage. I remember the mother who lost her twin sons, only to later remarry and have more children - the joy that came in the morning. I remember hearing stories of rescuers who later killed themselves because they were initially heroes but couldn't cope with the loss of sudden fame.

The reason 9/11 resonates so much more for me is that I watched it happen. I can remember second by second what I did that morning, what decisions I made and why I made them and how I felt. I remember the eerie silence on the train going home that morning and the absolute irony of watching young men play basketball instead of being in school as the world flipped on its axis. Every time I watch A&E's "Flight 93" I cry - not so much for the ones on the plane, but the loved ones they left behind who knew at any moment, those last words from their husband, son, daughter, would be the last ones forever.

My son will never know the true horrors of that day. But one day I will tell him about it. Hopefully, he will never have a memory of a day like 9/11 of his own.

May God bless and keep us all, now and forever.

Patricia W. said...

Great post, Bettye! I was in NYC on 9/11. I made it out of the city and home two days later, after the bridges reopened. After the first few anniversaries, I got irritated by all of the hoopla. I wanted to forget. But I understood that others felt differently then and I understand now while our remembrances as a country are waning a bit. Time goes on.

I'm glad that my then six-year-old 1st grader is now a 12-year-old middle schooler, who now can find humor in the fact that while talking to me, he asked whether the Towers had fallen on me. Which would have made it a little difficult for me to be talking to him.

I'm glad that I've since given birth to two other sons, who know nothing of that horror. Or that fear.

bettye griffin said...

Thanks for refreshing my memory on Oklahoma City. I'd forgotten that they initially believed it was a gas explosion. The idea of someone doing such an act deliberately seemed too horrible to be real, even though movies had been using terrorist acts on U.S. soil as entertainment fodder for years (something I never approved of, then or now).

Pat, thanks for sharing the perspective of 9/11 from a child's viewpoint. I suppose that many children living in big-city high rises found it hard to go to sleep for some time afterward, and trying to explain what happened to youngsters without scaring them had to be difficult, if not impossible, task.

Chelle Sandell said...

I was working on Britton Rd, about a mile from downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. I was working at a law firm on the fourth floor with glass windows across the front when we heard an incredible boom and our building shook. We worked close to the local news stations and immediately the choppers took off toward the downtown area. We thought a plane had crashed. Looking out in the parking lot we could see what looked to be glitter and car alarms going off everywhere. A huge smoke plume was rising as was the sun on a beautiful spring morning. Immediately attorney's turned the conference room tv on and it was thought to have been the courthouse...across the street from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. We had attorneys in court but couldn't reach anyone. We quickly heard an update pointing across the street at the Murrah bldg. An attorney was injured from the blast but drove himself to the hospital, he was in shock and doesn't remember. My friend turned ghost white and ran from the room. I was in shock as I watched the news unfold. My cousin called frantic because I was so close as did many friends across the country...knowing where I worked. I couldn't cry...but we watched news coverage all day of broken and bloody people being rescued. My friends ex-husband was in the front of the building in the HUD housing ofc and they eventually recovered his body. Her daughters wedding was only a week away. My cousins husband is a firefighter and was on a responding rig on scene that day. He was assigned to the front where the playground was and as an EMT set up triage. But he was also in the team to recover. He has nightmares to this day. I could go on and on but I am crying as I type cause the memories are so fresh. I went home that day and didn't go to work for several days just so I could stay home and hug my two year old. We read and reread every book we owned and played every game over and over. I couldn't get enough. Edie Smith never got the chance to see Colton and Chance read another book. The tragic events of 9/11 unfolded on live tv as my new husband and I watched the Today Show on NBC as the second plane hit the Twin Towers. The OKC bombing never strays far from my memories as I'm sure 9/11 does for so many.

bettye griffin said...

Thank you for sharing your memories of the Oklahoma City bombing. It seems so much more real when an account is provided by someone close to the scene.

We all pray there will be no more strikes against our country, whether homegrown or by outside forces.