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Sunday, September 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Commemorating 9/11: pain, healing and resolve

How much is too much?

That seems to be the question du jour among us media types as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches. In one form or another, USA Today has asked it, as have U.S. News & World Report, the CBS radio network and The Associated Press.

It's not hard to understand why they ask, what with television networks, radio networks, newspaper publishers, politicians and cities around the nation all preparing to solemnize the day. Yet, the question jolts you because you still remember the first airless moments when you sat riveted to the television and too much wasn't half enough.

And now? Now Sept. 11 has come to feel like a scene from someone else's nightmare, like tragedy glimpsed through gauze. There's a sense of disconnect and the coming anniversary catches some of us at loose ends, like when you're posing for a snapshot and you're not quite sure what to do with your hands.

This is, it seems to me, part of the problem we struggle with as we decide how to memorialize that day — the fact that it has already come to seem so distant. I used to think it was just me, figured it was just a loose wire in my brain that accounted for this nagging inability to conjure the raw emotions of one year ago. But I've come to realize that many of us are experiencing that distance. Some are even dreading the coming hoopla because they know this will bring it all close again. Make it all real again.

Your first instinct is to wonder if we in this country aren't simply too shallow and too superficial to mourn for too long. We are, after all, the folks who reduced grief to a series of stages, like handoff points on a relay race with "closure" as the finish line.

I could buy that. Except, I'm reminded that something similar happened after the worst personal tragedies of my life — the deaths of my parents. Somewhere along the way, somehow without my even noticing it, those losses stopped hurting like they once did. What had been the knife's edge of agony became instead a dull ache of regret. The grief never left, but it became something I could manage. Something I could just about live with.

I tend to believe that's the way the human heart is designed — that it has a limited ability to hold onto the rawness, the visceral thereness, of pain.

But pain has purpose, too. Pain is cement that binds resolve. And resolve is as important to us just now as any weapon in the military arsenal. After all, Sept. 11 brought home to us as no other day ever has the fact that we are enmeshed in a clash of cultures, of reason against zealotry and freedom against tyranny, a clash that will outlast the present era, the current presidential administration and require us to be steadfast, focused and determined for a long time to come.

So it seems to me that commemorating Sept. 11 ought to be about finding a median between the pain of the recent past, the healing of the present moment and the challenges of the very near future. None is complete without the other.

Lincoln, I think, had it right. In the middle of our greatest peril, our greatest president journeyed to a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., to dedicate a cemetery.

"But in a larger sense," he said, "we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

Rather, said Lincoln, the challenge "for us the living" was to remain "dedicated to the great task remaining before us." What was true 139 years ago is true today.

In other words, it's not about the words the politicians say on Sept. 11, not about how many hours Katie Couric broadcasts or how many pictures this newspaper or that one publishes. Rather, it's about the choices you and I make, about what we do with what we've learned. And whether our pain binds our resolve.

Because healing the wounds of Sept. 11 is not a sin. But forgetting them is.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com.

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