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Remembering

By Randy Hurst

Most of us will never forget where we were when we first heard the news. But we couldn’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster. We understood even less how 9/11 would change America.

Horrifying details were announced minute by minute. Initial disbelief was gradually replaced by the dreadful reality that no one, including the planners and attackers, could have conceived.

Certain images are permanently implanted in our minds — as the television replayed over and over American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the North Tower, the billowing explosion of flame and, possibly the most incredible scene of all — the first massive tower collapsing about an hour and 20 minutes after the impact.

We can never know how many experienced death instantly with no anticipation or how many stood in their offices watching in horror as the jet airliners streaked toward them. We can’t know how many died at their desks … or how many while fleeing down the staircases. They were all lives with plans and hopes that now could never be — snuffed out in a moment of savage and senseless hatred.

Most who died were helpless. Others had a choice. Police and firefighters risked their lives. Many sacrificed them. Children and youth who have never lived through a war learned about a new kind of hero. No longer were athletes and pop musicians at the top of the list. Civil servants are paid far less than celebrities, but gave far more.

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Randy Hurst
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Gradually, we realized that we could never feel as safe again. Millions of American children will never know the security we felt before this unprecedented act of violence. For many Americans, peace is now elusive or totally lost.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and when the Soviet empire crumbled, most Americans who had lived during the Cold War breathed sighs of relief and felt secure. But the short-lived sense of peace and safety soon yielded to anxiety. How would we cope with new enemies and a new kind of war?

A year after 9/11, we remember those who died and honor more than 300 firefighters and 23 police officers who gave their lives by risking death to save others.

Our human capacity to remember is not limited to scrapbooks and boxes of memorabilia. We have the capability of instantly recalling memories instilled by the senses — the smell of our grandmother’s kitchen or the texture of a blanket in our childhood. We savor some memories. Some bring joy, others a tear.

I believe the Vietnam Memorial is the most beautiful in our nation’s capital. It is certainly not the grandest. It can’t be seen from great distances like the Washington Monument, nor command the awe of the Lincoln Memorial. It hasn’t the beautiful classical architecture of the Jefferson Memorial. What it has is the capacity to move people to somber reverence and tears. And something unique … the living are a part of the Vietnam Memorial, because, more than any memorial in Washington, it evokes real memories. Each name carved in marble can recall a face to a family member or friend. People can be seen standing, sitting or kneeling at the black marble wall, some gently touching a name. Fathers and mothers remember sons and daughters. Some young people remember a father they weren’t old enough to know or who left for Vietnam before they were born.

Some things are easier to forget than others. The war in Vietnam was more recent than World War II but, for many Americans, is fainter in memory. The Nazi Holocaust still evokes horror, even for those who were not yet born.

In Bergen-Belsen, Germany, I walked in silence between mass graves. The only markers were small white signs reading "400," "800," and other numbers, each indicating how many unidentified bodies lay beneath the mound of sod. In the barracks of the Dachau concentration camp, I stood amid the tiny wooden bunks in which emaciated bodies had lain in orderly rows, before being taken to the ovens.

On April 6, 1994, tribal hatred erupted in the small African country of Rwanda, resulting in one of the worst genocides in history. In 100 days almost a million dead littered the roads, fields and hillsides.

In an underground crypt behind a church, I viewed the skulls and bones of more than 5,000 nameless Rwandans. All had been placed respectfully in orderly rows — a stark contrast to the brutal chaos in which these people died. Villagers had run screaming and dragging their children into this church for sanctuary, believing no one would kill them there. But soon stained glass shattered and machine guns protruded through the windows — then opened fire. I imagined 1,200 hearts beating in frantic terror and then stopping — one by one. The victims who didn’t die from the hail of bullets were clubbed or hacked to death. My head dropped to my chest in an involuntary response — in shock that this could be real.

Worship services never again will be held there. The church where the massacre took place is now a memorial site.

The Nazi death camps were systematic extermination … Rwanda was random butchery. Both are convincing evidence of the depths of evil to which human beings are capable of sinking.

The memorials of the death camps in Germany and of the genocide in Rwanda exist for one purpose … that people not forget these incomprehensible atrocities. They are mute but telling witnesses to senseless death.

Three weeks after the 9/11 disaster, steel girders, part of one of the collapsed towers, were found in the shell of 6 World Trade Center. They were standing upright in the form of a cross about 15 feet tall in a mass of rubble.

The cross was removed by iron workers and hoisted atop a concrete slab. Rescuers wrote messages on the cross for those who died or had been working at Ground Zero. Many have proposed the cross become part of a permanent memorial. Instead, it has become a center of controversy as the Organization of American Atheists has protested, claiming that the use of a cross in a government-funded monument "would violate the separation of church and state" and "be insensitive to those victims who had no religious beliefs."

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