Wednesday, September 17, 2008

September 11 Will Always Unite Americans

Published in The New Haven Register, September 15. Posted with the permission of the author.

By Neil Berro

Neil Berro lives in New Haven. Readers may write him in care of the Register, 40 Sargent Drive, New Haven 06511.

I visited the World Trade Center site Thursday, Sept. 11. I couldn't get close. The barriers were everywhere, in part because the presidential candidates were due to lay memorial flowers.

Pedestrian traffic flow was so constricted that it took, at one point, more than 10 minutes to walk about 100 feet. Across the street were shouting protesters demanding that the government confess at long last its role in a Sept. 11 cover-up and conspiracy.

It was the third time I had been to the site since the attacks seven years ago.

The first time was two weeks afterward when a friend and I wanted to be in the city to express our own sense of solidarity. Central Park, the major hotels, midtown, they were all at least half-deserted on that beautiful early fall Sunday in 2001.

The second time was last fall right before I was due to testify on behalf of secure driver's licenses as part of America's homeland security efforts. I wanted to be reminded why America needed to wake up and start taking identification security seriously.

I was in Israel Sept. 11, 2001. Even casual acquaintances said, be careful when you are in Israel. Of course, what I was thinking was, how does one be careful. Palestinian terrorists had made it a habit to attack civilians whenever and wherever possible. The carnage was growing and would become worse when I visited Israel some months later and nearly 40 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks.

About 500 American Jews had gone to express solidarity with Israel in its battle against terrorism. We had just finished a lovely lunch with some high-powered Israeli women philanthropists and were headed back to the buses when the cell phones went off.

The first reports were startling, but unconfirmed, as to their nature. Later, as the bus was stuck in traffic returning to Jerusalem, we heard the second horrifying reports of hijacked planes being turned into missiles against Americans.

Some of us had family and friends in those buildings. Rabbi Richard L. Eisenberg, then of Congregation B'nai Jacob in Woodbridge, became the healer and pastor to the entire bus as shock spread. His gentle tone as much as his words were powerful tools of comfort.

About 10 of us were from New Haven. More would have come, but for several last-second cancellations due to fears of travel in Israel. After hearing the news of the attacks, it made me think of the last time I saw those two tall towers.

It was on the way to Newark Airport two days before the attack. I kept thinking as we drove how unattractive those big boxy behemoths were, at least to me. But I also recalled how as a kid on Long Island, on a very clear day, I could see them standing as beacons some 30 miles away.

In Israel, we saw unedited video of Palestinians celebrating on CNN International. Later, there would be reports of Italian news media, which had filmed the demonstrations applauding the attacks, being threatened.

It was dawning on me that the West was finally being exposed to the extremes of terrorists who have an agenda, whether that agenda is to destroy a country, a people, a way of life or another faith.

Perhaps the greatest mistake the terrorists made was being too successful on Sept. 11. People may have short memories, but they don't have amnesia.

Seven years on, the West is still realizing that the war on terror is going to be very long and hard and bloody. It can no longer be cynically confined to permissible areas like shopping centers, buses, schools and restaurants in Israel.

The list of Western targets hit by extremists has affected people from hundreds of countries and come from all walks of life. Efforts at enhanced security are a feature in every nation. Most chilling, people who have expressed individual opposition to Islamic fanaticism have been subject to attack and killing. Journalists and others professing objectivity and even sympathy have not been immune.

On the issue of national security, Americans remain largely united, even if unfocused until reminded by the anniversary of Sept. 11. Only at the fringes of the far right and far left, where the conspiracy theorists reside, is there any real assertion that America or civilians in any nation deserve to be attacked.

America's enemies should not be fooled by all the politics of presidential campaigns. There is a rockhard and shared determination that our way of life will triumph over those whose first course of business is to disrupt and destroy that life precisely because the details of democracy will always elude the extremists.

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