If I still had the old job, right now I might be working hard to get an interview with a September 11 survivor — a near-miss story — or I might be trying to convince a family member of one of the dead to share their story with me. What were the last words? What have you been able to piece together about your loved one’s final minutes, or final seconds?
Sharing those memories, I would explain, would help preserve the memory of the deceased, and it would help the bereaved person, as well. I’d ask my questions, gain a little confidence, show some empathy and sympathy, and then slide into the tough questions: What about the money? How much, and what are your thoughts about it?
The first time I had to make the difficult call to a person who had lost a loved one was in the summer of 1967. I was a summer reporter at the Binghamton, N.Y., Evening Press. A soldier from town had died in Vietnam — the first Binghamton area casualty in that already politically charged war. Get the widow, the editor said. And here was the kicker: The dead soldier’s family ran a funeral home. The man’s body was on the first floor; the widow was in the living quarters above. The widow and the rest of the family were eager to talk. They had a story to tell. And I was in business.
The disasters and acts of war kept on coming: A woman in northern New Jersey whose son died in what appeared to be a cluster of leukemia cases. The parents of Etan Patz, snatched off the streets of New York City while walking one short block to the school bus stop. The relatives of those who perished on Korean Airlines Flight 007, gunned down by Russia when it strayed off course in 1983. The family of a Princeton University graduate who starved to death — Princeton graduate starves to death! — at an ashram in Bucks County.
But that’s a young person’s game, and fortunately for me the game and the job changed 18 years ago. In my new job I am not trying to relive the day or the moment of the September 11 attacks. Instead I am thinking about New York City’s self-imposed deadline of September 11, 2003, for agreeing on a design for a memorial to that bright September day.
As other commentators have observed, coming up with a suitable memorial will not be easy. The Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., lists the names of all 58,158 casualties of that war. It works: These soldiers went to war and got killed but have not been forgotten — one day I walked the Wall and made my way to the Gs. There inscribed on the marble was the name of Tom Gregory, a guy from my high school cross country team.
But what sort of memorial could make sense of terroristic acts of war that created more victims than heroes?
I think of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. This one began as a simple shrine, two rooms and a balcony in the old Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The owner of the motel kept those rooms intact, but continued run the business until the early 1980s, when a foundation was formed to save the motel from foreclosure. In 1991 it was opened as a museum and history center. Rooms 306 and 307 remain a shrine; the rest of the motel has been converted into 40,000 square feet of gallery space, with exhibits that chronicle the long journey of the Civil Rights movement.
A walk through the old Lorraine Motel today takes you back to the days of slavery in the 1800s, to the "separate but equal" policy, to Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, to a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus with a life-sized figure of Rosa Parks sitting in the front, to a 1950s dime store lunch counter, where a group of blacks are contemplating taking a seat.
Many of the life-sized exhibits are accompanied by audio and videotapes of the news of the day back in the 1950s and 1960s. I was struck by magnitude of the federal government’s involvement in desegregation — much more powerful than I remembered. A 1963 recording of John F. Kennedy addressing Governor George Wallace on the occasion of the integration of the University of Alabama shows the determination of the government, and helps explain the long lasting bitterness of states’ rights proponents. "You mean to tell me that the government is prepared to use force to admit these Negroes?" the governor asks, in effect. "That’s exactly what I mean to tell you, Governor," the president snarls back. If it were a movie, you’d cast Clint Eastwood as the president.
As we think back to a year ago, we might reasonably wonder if we will ever achieve normalcy in this new age of terrorism. On the other hand, after visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, you can imagine that reasonable people might have felt the same when witnessing the horrific racial divisions of the 1950s and ’60s. The old motel in Memphis shows the progress.
Someday a 9/11 memorial might do the same. In the meantime I will bear in mind that remembering is one thing; understanding is another.