Paul Greenberg

It's not an easy country to destroy, America. It has a way of coming back. Maybe because it keeps growing despite everything, covering old ruins with new life. A new order for the ages still rises on this continent. Novus Ordo Seclorum. Just as it says on the dollar bill. Hey, what a country, with its curious combination of the classical and futuristic, of George Washington and Flash Gordon.

In the vault that will support the reborn trade center, like remembrance undergirding vigilance, the Last Column of the old world trade center still stands, preserved in a climate-controlled capsule. It rests inside the great space that will be the memorial museum. It already has the feel of a cathedral. The sound of the outside world penetrates only as a distant hum, like today's news imposed on yesteryear's horrific events.

This last column of the old structure stands in front of the 37foot high scarred and pitted slurry wall. Here's hoping the old, torn and tattered flag hoisted by the firemen above the still smoking ruins of September 11, 2001, will be the first to fly over this monument, garden, commercial center, rail station and, someday soon, soaring symbol of an America restored and rampant.

The stick figures in the architect's drawings of this new city center will soon become flesh and blood -- commuters too wrapped up in blessed normalcy to notice the history they're rushing through. Just the way it's supposed to be. Yet this place will remain holy though they know it not.

For nine years, this site of our national travail has lain fallow, even while plans for an Islamic cultural center only two blocks north took shape, inspiring mostly division even as it was supposed to unite. What an act of statesmanship it would be if the imam in charge of this ill-considered project, in keeping with the once strong tradition of Islamic tolerance, were to recognize the discord it has sown, and announce that it was being moved a decent distance away. Now that would be a true service to national unity, making many into one, as in E Pluribus Unum.

Even the president who first defended this bad idea now has had second and better thoughts. ("I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of putting a mosque there.") He had been speaking, said the president, only of Americans' right to worship where we will. But what is legally right may not be the right thing to do. That preacher/agitator down in Florida had a right to burn the Koran, too -- it's a free country. But that wouldn't have made it right, either.

When some mischief-maker suggested that a bar catering to homosexuals be erected right next to the planned Islamic center, a spokesman for the center objected. "If you won't consider the sensibilities of Muslims," he warned, "you won't build dialogue."

Exactly. Just as the Muslim leaders behind this ill-considered project would have done better to consider the sensibilities of their fellow Americans. Tolerance requires not only acceptance but a respect for others' feelings, a willingness to maintain a decent distance from what they hold holy. For familiarity breeds something other than respect.

This distracting issue will pass. Slowly we will come together again and plant new roots in our common American heritage. And one day soon Old Glory will crown another American rebirth. September 11th will follow September 11th year after year. And each year there will be something more to remember, some new lesson to learn from old pain fading. Grief never goes away, but it does change, the way a river changes. This grief will turn into determination, into endurance, into wisdom. Forget? Never. Learn? Always. And come awake.

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.