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Jewish World Review May 23, 2003 / 21 Iyar 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Still lost for words at Ground Zero

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | NEW YORK - More than a year and a half later, they continue to come to ground zero - the mourners, the curious, the unnerved masses stupified by the enormity of what happened here.

They come on foot, in cars and cabs, on bicycles and city buses.

They come on subways and red sightseeing buses.

They even come led by Seeing Eye dogs to grasp the scale of death, to get a fix on the fanaticism that killed nearly 3,000 people here in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But they come not simply to feel the evil, not just to coagulate at the fences so they can measure the height and width and depth of that darkly chaotic, explosive day. No, they come also to give voice to their inability to exhaust the meaning of 9-11 with words.

Their words, scrawled on a long gray wall at the south end of ground zero, are, with few exceptions, maudlin and melodramatic, almost a litany of cliche.

"G-d bless America," they say over and over and over. And "They may have died but they're always in our hearts." And "We will remember."

I do not mean to be critical when I say all this is cliche.

Rather, I mean to note how astonishingly difficult it is to make sense of what happened here and to offer up that meaning in any words at all, let alone fresh and insightful ones.

The tone of poetic mediocrity is set in huge words that cover one side of a building at the site's south edge: "The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart."

It's the sort of pseudo-profundity that sells millions of little self-help books and day-by-day quote calendars.

I found two writings on the wall that summed up my disappointment in our collective public ineloquence: "Lost for words," signed by Elaine Jamieson and Terry Mackenzie of Aberdeen, Scotland; and these from someone anonymous, "I'm speechless."

Sometimes nothing is the most profound thing we can say when we face the awesome immensity of humanity's loose and wandering fires of hatred.

Some people, of course, use the wall-writing opportunity to reveal that they learned nothing at all from the luminescent madness that drove the terrorists. For instance, "N.B." from Australia wrote these malicious words on March 22 of this year: "Destroy Islam. Destroy Mecca. ... so the spirit of the fallen may rejoice."

No one can speak authoritatively for the fallen, but because I knew his gentle spirit well, I would be stunned if my nephew, who perished here on Sept. 11, would rejoice if we destroyed Islam and Mecca. He would weep. So would I.

And yet, as free people, we are willing to let even gnarled, pinched hearts spit out their venom for all to read.

Today I have found my nephew's name, Karleton D.B. Fyfe, on the plaques listing the dead. Karleton was on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. His name is directly across Church Street from a building that houses a Brooks Brothers store. The incongruity makes me smile. I remember when Karleton bought his first pair of expensive business shoes after college so he'd be dressed properly for his job in the financial world.

I don't know if he got them from Brooks Brothers, but I do know they had tassles that his dog promptly ate. A couple of days later he was walking the dog when the tassles reappeared in the way that undigestible items do when they've been run through a dog. Karleton collapsed in laughter.

Imagine how many families now tell such stories to remember the people murdered here.

So far Karleton has no grave we can visit. So, from time to time, we come here. It's a hard business. It fills the heart and does not bring him back. Still, we come.

And all over the world there are Palestinian and Israeli, Afghan and Iraqi, Filipino and Bali families who also grieve their own victims of mad violence.

I would write an ode or a song, an elegy or a hymn to gather up my own anger and sorrow and place it like a grain offering on the altar of your soul. But today I am in harmony with Elaine Jamieson and Terry Mackenzie of Aberdeen, Scotland. Today I am lost for words.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved