The Pope At Ground Zero


Pope Benedict XVI appeared at Ground Zero on April 20, 2008, Sunday, to sanctify the soil, pray for peace and to meet and console widows of the attacks and emergency service personnel.  The service was touching, as we observed the Pope movingly clutch the hands of the aggrieved, look directly into their eyes, and share with each of them his sincere concern.  The Pontiff, understood to be an austere guardian of canon and law, showed himself also to be a compassionate and gracious man, offering comfort and solace to all.  During his visit to the US, he also conducted masses at Nationals' Park in Washington and Yankee Stadium, to speak at the UN, to recieve matzah and meet with Jews at the Park East Synagogue in NY (the first Papal visit to an American synagogue), and visit with Muslims in an interfaith gathering in Washington.

But it was his visit to Ground Zero that seemed most affecting - for better and for worse.

It was good of the Pope to go to the site of the World Trade Center attacks, to bless and console loved ones of the victims of 9/11 and to consecrate the soil as a way of giving meaning to the thousands of lives senselessly snuffed out on that terrible day, to stand in the center of that awful pit of ruin and crushing death and consecrate the ground as something holy, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, and as has been done at other sites of horrible suffering (Auschwitz), to redeem and transform that suffering into something noble and significant, as miserable and tragic as it was.  

His visit also served to remind the world of the mindless barbarism of the Jihadists who struck that awful blow on that day as they have done in so many other places before and since and continue to do so, to recall anew that there is indeed a war between good and evil, to recollect again that the moment the Twin Towers were attacked, a clarion call was sounded, and for a brief time at least, moral clarity took root in the nation, and an important distinction was drawn between the horrendous savagery of Jihadism and the decency and tolerance of our American way of life, of our American/Western civilization, of the uprightness of liberal democratic capitalism as the imperfect but superior vehicle upon which to organize society, a model for the world - a system very much worth fighting for indeed. 

Yes, all that, for a time, rang true through out the land, and the Pontiff's visit to Ground Zero reminded us again of the gaping chasm that exists between these two disparate visions of the world.

But what was generally not noted by pundits and commentators was the unhappy reality that Ground Zero remains as it has since 9/11, a moribund and desolate crater, now more than six years after the terrible event - unchanged because of a moral paralysis that grips the effort to rebuild, no less than the moral confusion that fixes the nation, mired as it is in endless in fighting, litigation, and wrangling between various factions, interest groups, and agendas that prevents forward movement in raising from the ashes, the architectural phoenix that is required for the financial district of the greatest city in the world. 

And I wonder, when we will no longer have to look into that brown pit of dirt and grime and begin to see parks, offices, businesses, majestic buildings, promenades, trees, gardens, flowers, galleries, retail shops, restaurants, ponds, fountains, and, yes, a memorial to the victims, and proper tribute to those who came at great risk and sacrifice to help, and all the rest we've been promised, making use of what is after all prime Manhattan real estate? 

And when, I also wonder, will we hear less of the "families of the victims" and more about the victims themselves?  When shall we be released from their hold over this apocalyptic event in our nation's history?   At what point, I wonder, can we separate them from 9/11 and remember it primarily as a great national tragedy (in the manner of Pearl Harbor), and not the personal property of the families of the victims, for whom we have already (and properly so) mourned with and paid homage to. 

And what does it say about this country that almost seven years after, we continue to see a gaping hole in the middle of Manhattan's financial district?

I should state that the suffering of the families of the victims was indeed horrendous and that they deserved our commiseration and sympathy, which has been amply given.  But, it should also be noted that every death whatever the cause is a generally a loss and tragedy for someone beyond the victim himself.  Including, for example, the families of the more than 4000 troops killed in Iraq.  Or the families of the victims of Pearl Harbor.  Or the families of all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen that have died defending our country throughout our history. 

And we can ask delicately if any of them recieved anything like the attention and sympathy of the nation as did the families of the 9/11 victims or the rather extravagant tax payer funded compensation (total award of $7 billion with average payout of $1.8 million - to prevent them from suing the airlines and possibly bankrupting them)? 

Did the victims of other terrorist attacks including the Oaklahoma bombing and others (Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya) recieve such compensation and does it not set a damaging precedent?  Can we ask if the nation has not already done right by them and whether we have their permission to move forward and rebuild at Ground Zero? 

Some points of comparison. 

In the midst of the Depression, the nation's economy in ruin, the US still found within itself the wherewithal to build the Empire State building in 14 months, from March 17, 1930 to May 1, 1931, to become the tallest building in the world, which it remained until 1972 when the Twin Towers were built.  At the time, it was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the modern world. (The Chrysler Building, by the way, was built in less than two years between September 19, 1928 and May 28, 1930, to become for a short time, the world's tallest building, until the Empire State Building surpassed it in 1931.)

The Hoover Dam, also built during the Depression, took three years to construct from 1932-1935, two years ahead of schedule, to become the world's largest electric power facility until eclipsed by the Grand Coulee Dam in 1945 (also built for the most part during the depression and completed during WW II).

The Battle of Midway was a major Naval victory for the US against the Japanese, fought from June 4-7, 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor.  It gave the US  sea supremacy over the Japanese who lost four aircraft carriers and five other battleships in the three day battle fought near the Midway Islands in the Pacific.

The US Marines landed in Guadalcanal in Augst 1942, eight months after Pearl Harbor, conquering the island from the Japanese by February 1943, thereby preventing the Japanese from interfering with communications and transport between the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and ending Japanese expansion in the Pacific. 

Furthermore, the US went on to defeat its enemies, Germany, Italy, and Japan, major industrial and military powers, no less, on three continents around the world in three years.  That Atomic Bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war were themselves developed in three years (the Manhattan Project). 

This, in contrast, while we remain mired fighting in two third world nations in Iraq and Afghanistan, against stateless terrorists that do not control the apparatus and infrastructure of nations and their resources, more than six years after 9/11.  What has become of the nation that built the Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam during the Depression in so short a time or that picked itself up after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and defeated the axis powers in three years?

Have we become so addicted to our government programs, our pandering politicians, our therapuetic culture, our non judgmentalism, our whining, our confessionalism, our self indulgence, our Oprah, our Jerry Springer, our ipods, our laptops, our cell phones, our satellite dishes, our lawsuits, our dysfunctional families, our radical self autonomy, our multiculturalism and political correctness, have become, in other words, so soft, pampered and ineffective that we are no longer capable of mounting a national effort, sustaining it over time, and completing it?  

Are we so wedded to our lawyers, factions, infighting, political allegiances, personal agendas, and narrow self interest that we cannot build colossal skyscrapers, soaring structures, modern, architectural marvels (and, yes, proper memorials and tributes to victims, families, and those who helped), bigger and better than the Twin Towers, as a statement to our enemies and to the world that the US is back in business?  Do we lack the moral and spiritual capital, the will, sinew, and grit, to manage our problems, defeat our enemies, and achieve great things? 

Can we not fill the vacuum at Ground Zero so we no longer have to look at a dark pit?


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