A deep emptiness

May 27, 2002

ABOUT TWO DOZEN places in the United States lay claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day, but the day was first officially commemorated May 30, 1868, when mourners gathered at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington to place flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

In marking this annual day of remembrance - long observed on the last Monday in May - how many times since then have Americans said this time, this year, this Memorial Day is different?

As American soldiers died in the awful trenches of Europe during World War I? On the bloody beachheads of island after island in the Pacific theater of World War II? While taking, losing and retaking icy mountaintops in Korea? In the desperate heat of Vietnam's jungles?

And so again, this time, this year, this Memorial Day is different.

Americans are at war, a new and not very well understood kind of war at that - one that for the first time began on this continent and that was directed at innocent civilians, right in the center of America's greatest city.

This time, this year, this Memorial Day, a whole new set of indelible images has been added to our many commonly held references for the wages of war.

The still unfathomable toppling of the World Trade Center's towers in the astonishing attack of Sept. 11 now connects across time with the endless rows of white crosses of fallen soldiers at the national military burial ground by the Potomac River.

Asked for his thoughts on Memorial Day, an 83-year-old World War II veteran - who recalls, among many horrors from some 60 years ago, being blown off the deck of a ship by a Japanese bomber - pauses for some time and then talks not of his dead comrades but of how those who've never seen combat can never really know what it's like.

But this time, this year, this Memorial Day, war has been brought home. A whole new kind of war victim and a whole new kind of hero are inescapably symbolized by the now scraped-clean site of the once mighty twin towers.

The painstaking job of clearing debris from this deep hole in Lower Manhattan will formally be declared done this Thursday, May 30, the original date for Memorial Day. There will be a ceremony at Ground Zero beginning at 10:29, the moment that the second tower came crashing down.

As the World Trade Center site is redeveloped in coming years, it undoubtedly will serve as a memorial to the thousands of war victims who perished there so suddenly Sept. 11, as well as in the attack on the Pentagon that day and in the airliner that was driven into the woods of Pennsylvania.

But this year, this time, this Memorial Day, this huge hole in the ground, this deep emptiness, already serves to reflect a nation's mourning.

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