The mind asks, 'my God, what have they done?'

Posted: Nov 02, 2001 12:00 AM
Ground Zero. Been there. New York's is not unlike the original - in Hiroshima. Done that, too. You can reach the World Trade Center's secure "Red Zone" a variety of ways. We took the subway and emerged into a crowd shuffling and subdued - as the city seems understandably to be these days. Osama and his kamikaze killers nailed much of New York's natural brash as well, at least for a while. The area is a massive crime scene, a war zone. Police monitor the fences and police tape barricades. Guardsmen man key access points - waving through rubble-filled trucks and closed cars with VITs (Very Important Tourists) such as Jacques Chirac, Oprah, Larry King, Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, pols, and sequin-hatted potentates. A blonde in fatigues with a sergeant's voice and a large set of pecs insists loudly that venturesome peons (UTs - Unescorted or Unconnected or Unimportant Tourists) will risk her wrath if they don't get down off the sawhorses and stop craning for a better look. As it is you can see very little, and then only from a few key spots. Blasé policemen wearily recommend the best place. The corner of Liberty and Broadway offers a view of a still-smoldering void edged by blackened facades and girder shards. Some buildings, undergoing cleaning and repair, stand sheathed in orange shrouds. Where the WTC's 100-story south tower stood the eye finds only baby-blue sky with an airliner eerily gliding across on its final approach. And the mind replays that compelling footage.... Body-to-body on the sidewalk, no one says anything - each lost in his own reflections about the atrocity's extent and degree, the devastation's scale and scope. It is too much for the mind to grasp. New street signs declare this the "Canyon of Heroes." Peddlers stand silent holding their belly boxes of stolen and counterfeit watches. On its circuit of grief, the crowd shoves and pushes past hotdog carts and kiosks selling I Love N.Y. posters of the WTC in its glory and a big red heart scorched at the corner. Street preachers dispense Bibles and gospel tracts, and ramble on about sin and redemption and apocalypse. Testimonials and Hiroshimalike mini-shrines to lost loved ones bedeck this lamppost or that fence - and over there the fire station. At nearby Trinity Church, with its headstones hauntingly darkened not by war but by three centuries of New York grime, the curious and the prayerful weep. The scene recalls Hiroshima, yes - and the hallowed ground at Gettysburg and Cold Harbor, the Hanoi Hilton and the Nazi crematoriums, Verdun and the Normandy beaches. Sites of man's highs and lows, his heroism and the horror he can do. And the dominant sense, gazing at the Ground Zero void - at the two massive symbols of economic liberty, and the political liberty that is its necessary complement, now in smithereens - is of anguish mixed with new determination. Perhaps that is the confused sense in the minds of this horde of Americans, vastly diverse New Yorkers, tourists important and un-. How do we fill the void? With a vast greensward, as at Hiroshima? With defiant new buildings reaching to the sky? With, in that nothingness, a new oneness? With despair? With fond memories of those who perished? With resolve to ferret out the perpetrators that they not strike again? When the "Enola Gay's" co-pilot Robert Lewis saw Hiroshima disappear after his plane dropped the bomb, he wrote in his log: "My God, what have we done?" Few Americans ever have experienced an assault on what they are - on what we are as a people - or the chilling void of such an assault's aftermath. There at Ground Zero the mind asks, "My God, what have they done?" and wonders whether, in the void where thousands met their rendezvous with death, one perceives a nation's rendezvous with destiny.