September 11, 2001 --the sunniest day that felt as long as a year of darkness. A few days later as I gave a eulogy for my friend the fire chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. I looked down at the first pew and I saw former President Bill Clinton wiping away tears. As I invoked faith and sacrifice I silently questioned...both. As I touched the coffin I prayed: Mike, we’ll meet again. Others never had the privilege of touching a coffin or seeing a loved one in repose.
For months after streets of New York, the halls of the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania were soaked by the tears of a nation as fathers, brothers, family and friends silently searched for loved ones at a burial place ignominiously named Ground Zero—right across this harbor. Grief stricken inch by grief stricken inch of pulverized dreams with a strand of DNA as the only link to a treasured past.
Nine years later, today, we all understand faith and sacrifice more than ever imagined we could. Hints of that sacrifice were heard as I spoke in the Church of St. Francis, as firefighters and police officers in dust-drenched bunker gear and jumpsuits muffled newly acquired coughs.
You see the Ground Zero dust was cancer. And just like the souls of the faithful departed who sought heaven as they flew from windows above this harbor and their brothers and sisters who rushed into the burning towers to salvage a life their fate was also sealed on that day. Now they die day by day in a slow motion replay of 9/11 free fall. They die with our gratitude but mostly without our attention.
So above all on this day we honor the dead and the living and the sick, innocents all, of every color, of every faith, of every station. On this day they have our gratitude and our attention and our prayers.
Those who have loved and lost, served and died here, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville and in Iraq and Afghanistan are people we aspire to be associated with.
But the association brings with it deep, daily obligation.
Remembering is only the beginning. Duty is in the doing. Service is in the serving. And the best indicator of the state of our nation is not the iconic design of a memorial or the brilliant rhetoric of a politician’s September 11th dutiful remarks to tearful survivors. It’s how we respond to national challenge.
Do we answer the call to service? Do we treasure the romance of duty? Do we demand the necessity of honor? We do and we have and we will.
So when we look across this harbor in the shadow of the lady statue we call Liberty, we can truthfully say to the friends we knew, and the friends we never had a chance meet, that the call has been answered, the romance embraced and the honor affirmed.
New York City rises today as does this nation. Soon a sky that was once filled with ash and sacrifice and pain and desperation will become a sky full of dreams and aspirations and achievement and obligations met. The lives we lost now transformed into a nation’s better angels who fly above us, who define our unique and exceptional and indomitable American consciousness and our character.
I said to my friend Michael and to others I lost on that day, that we’d meet again. I have faith we’ll run into Michael and all our friends in a park called Liberty, facing a waterfront lined with opportunity and a skyline called Freedom built with the very painful bricks of their sacrifice.
Peter Johnson Jr. is an attorney and Fox News contributor.
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