Best of America exemplified in acts of heroism, tolerance

September 20, 2001|By Michael Olesker

NEW YORK - THE fireman and the iron worker, covered in grime and soot, have ceased hauling debris out of the former World Trade Center and wandered up to the park at Union Square, where they sit on a couple of benches with the weariest countenances in the history of mankind.

"Thank you," says a woman with a French accent, reaching out to shake the fireman's hand.

"Yes, ma'am," the fireman replies softly.

"Thank you for everything," says an old man, reaching toward the iron worker. A small ceremony of gratitude seems to be commencing. But the iron worker has seen so much, and lifted so much, that he does not move and does not change his blank expression.

"This is a time," says a woman from Trinidad, gazing down benevolently at the fireman, "for sackcloth and ashes."

The fireman, Paul Palmisano of Rockaway Point, Queens, looks up and mutters, "Heaven and earth shall pass away ... ."

"He will provide," says the woman from Trinidad, Dr. Karen Cruze, of the Spiritual Army ministry of Jackson Heights, Queens.

"It's what keeps me going on three hours' sleep," says Palmisano.

A little crowd forms around the two men. In America, we sometimes take such people - firemen, police, those who get their hands dirty every day - for granted. But no more. These are the ones who marched in during the worst of it and stuck around, and it will be a long time before they are overlooked again.

"What did you see down there?" somebody asks Palmisano, gesturing toward the rubble of the World Trade Center, perhaps 20 blocks south of here. He shakes his head and thinks about it.

"Thank God, no body parts," he says. "But shoes, clothes. People must have been blown right out of their clothes. And pictures of families."

"You?"

The question goes to the iron worker, whose name tag says Richard Cohen. He is lanky, bearded, filthy, and raises his head slowly.

"What did you see?" he is asked.

"You don't want to know," he says. His eyes are wide open, but lifeless. He has what they call the 50-mile stare. "You don't want to know," he says again.

And so the questioner turns away, slightly ashamed, because maybe we really don't want to know how bad it is, and how bad it may get.

It is easier to stroll through a park, and look at the stunned faces of New Yorkers who have turned Union Square into a kind of shrine, and wonder how people can handle the grief for families, and for their city.

Around the park are flowers and candles and enlarged photos of those still referred to as "missing." As visitors wander about, the loudest sound is the chirping of birds, telling everybody to cheer up. You want to tell the birds to can it. You want to tell them that everybody in this big, silent crowd will be furious for blood until the terrorist killings are avenged. And then you begin to notice things.

There's a statue of George Washington on his horse. Washington's arm is raised, as though giving a benediction, or signaling a battle charge. But people have chalked all over the horse: "Love, Love, Love." Nearby are papier-mache doves of peace. Over there, someone's hung a banner with a line by Gandhi: "Peace will not come out of a clash of arms but justice lived." Another banner says, "Meet hate with compassion." And another: "2001 years of violence - What have we learned?"

You want to strangle these people.

You want to ask them if they've seen the bodies in the rubble, or noticed the canyon that used to be the tallest part of the world's proudest skyline. You want to march them over to the fireman and the iron worker who have just come from 12 hours of wallowing around in the worst of it, and you want to throttle these pacifists for not being angry enough.

And then you realize: These people are precisely the beauty of America.

They have taken the enemy's worst, and insist we can do better than that. They insist that a philosophy only holds true if it holds in the worst of times, and not just the easiest. They declare that killing that leads to more killing is not revenge, but an extension of the barbarism.

And, even if we disagree, even if we find such sentiments outrageous in such a dreadful hour - this is America. The debate itself is our very strength. This is the country where we let ourselves argue it out: with passion, but with civility and respect for the very process. We do not demand everyone marching lockstep. And this, too, is what distinguishes us from those who flew the death planes.

On a tree in Union Square, someone has posted an "Open Letter to a Terrorist." It says, in part:

"Well, you hit the World Trade Center, but you missed America. You hit the Pentagon, but you missed America. Why? Because America isn't about a building, or financial centers, or a military. America isn't about a place. America isn't even about a bunch of bodies. America is about an idea.

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