Paul Greenberg

Why was this September 11th different from all other September 11ths?

Because on this September 11th, there were are signs of reconstruction, even rededication, at Ground Zero. Tangible, concrete, noisy, dusty, comforting, encouraging signs. The whole place, above and below ground, was coming alive again. At last.

This year, what had been only a yawning crater for so long was filled with cranes, towers, tracks, tunnels ... and trees. You could see green again. Life. The first white oak trees, each about 30 feet tall, arrived last month. Carefully cultivated at a nursery just across the East River in Monmouth County, New Jersey, the 16 oaks were lifted by cranes, then planted in a rich, deep bed of soil. There'll be more than enough earth between them and the labyrinth of underground caverns beneath them for the trees to sink their roots deep. Like liberty in America.

This 8-acre memorial garden will provide shade and solace in the middle of a great urban reconstruction. Four hundred of the trees -- 416 to be exact -- are to take root here, like hope and memory. Around, under, soaring above them, a whole new complex of structures arises. The trees are a happy portent in this our summer of discontent -- a verdant oasis in the midst of the alternating listlessness and anger that pervades the country as election fever mounts. This old republic, too, keeps sinking new roots.

Ground Zero is no longer an empty pit -- a wasteland far below that sightseers stare at with something too close to pity. After all these years of squabbling indecision, the architects' schematic drawings are taking shape in steel and concrete. Two 176-foot squares clad in gray granite, each 30 feet deep, now outline the footprints of the old Twin Towers that will become clear pools. Bronze panels around them are to bear the names of each of the 2,982 dead lost here. But not forgotten. Never forgotten.

Deep underground, the great city's third largest rail station is taking shape even as 100,000 commuters pour into the city every day via a temporary station. They could discern the rounded outlines of the new structures if they bothered to look. The mezzanine of the new station, designed by the great bridge builder Santiago Calatrava, begins to take a natural, elliptical shape. At the scene of this monstrous crime, with all its murders most foul, new life now emerges. As if to cleanse the site with labor, commerce, and all the mundane blessings of life in America.

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.