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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the September 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Remembering September 11
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
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
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
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.
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