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September 11, 2002


President Bush at Ground Zero


By Carter B. Horsley

September 11, 2002 - Today, the first anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, will live in empathy.

In an extraordinary day of commiseration, President Bush celebrated the lives of those lost in the attacks by personally reaching out to many of the bereaved. The highlight of a very busy and long day of memorials was his visit to Ground Zero to lay a wreath and meet with the families of those lost at the World Trade Center site. He and the First Lady walked slowly and solemnly down the 800-foot-long bridge into the seven-story-deep site, hand in hand. He then proceeded to walk around the large circle in the center of the site strewn with wreaths and flags and to shake hands with some, hug others and kiss the cheeks of some. He also signed autographs, received momentos, and posed for pictures if requested. The First Lady accompanied him and after a while she also shook hands. It took a very long time. Not all of the bereaved families showed up for the occasion, but many did.

President Bush with the bereaved

What was remarkable about this part of the day was that the President was in no hurry, showed no favor, and was impressive earnest. He was this public's servant. He was theirs to command, but he also was steadfastly their leader, and there could be no doubt of the genuine emotion.

Political handshaking is a minor art, of course, but this was not the usual "happy to see yuh," canned repartee, 15-second "bite." It lasted about two hours and came after many hours of traveling and ceremonies and before a major televised address to the nation. It also came during an "orange" alert, the nation's second highest level of security warnings, and concerns that terrorists might use the anniversary to launch another attack.

President Bush and the First Lady offer solace at ground zero

In this "modern" era, it is easy to casually assume that political leaders can spin off "picture opportunities" at a moment's notice and most are for a moment's notice. While it is demeaning to measure this "opportunity" in time, nonetheless the President's performance was inspiring, heart-felt, and flawless.

This day, and this occasion in particular, was viewed by some as a chance to bring some "closure" to the suffering caused by the attacks. The media has produced an overwhelming abundance of commemorative material and it has been refreshing that some much of it has been executed with great taste and been very moving. ABC-TV had a profoundly absorbing program the night before in which some of the firemen who participated in the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center and survived bared their souls with tremendous sensitivity and intelligence and fine humanity. This evening, Tom Brokaw anchored a fascinating program interviewing the air-traffic controllers who were on duty during the terrorist attacks. It, and another ABC-TV program interviewing various high-level government officials, revealed how truly terrifying the day of the attacks had been: were there to be more attacks and what targets?

Perhaps because of the profusion of news about security alerts, New York City was not too crowded today. A few stores and apartment buildings that had taken down their American flags after many months brought them out again. It was not unusual for people to talk with apprehension about the day because of concerns about security, but the city went about its business pretty much as usual with the stock exchange decided only to open a couple of hours later.

The names of the 2,801 persons who perished in the attacks were read in a ceremony at Ground Zero earlier in the day. There were moments of silence. Bells were rung. An eternal flame was lit at Battery Park City with representatives of 91 nations attending. Religious institutions held special services. Memorial concerts were held in all the boroughs with Billy Joel singing "New York State of Mind" in Central Park.

There appears to have been no diminution of intense emotions about the attacks. The shock and hurt remain and the trauma still has not abated.

The healing process has been long and continues, but the spirit, the notion, the momentum of community has accelerated in New York and the nation.

It was a sad day of mourning and tributes, but it was also another day in which humanity was embraced and flourished.



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