Family refuses to allow grief to be twisted into fear, bigotry

September 11, 2006|By Karl Colon

My life certainly was changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, because it gave me a chance to see the true heart of America in action. In the aftermath of 9/11, I saw a family that was devastated by the World Trade Center attack use it as an opportunity to practice their belief in the deepest of American values: judging people as individuals.

I experienced the morning of 9/11 the way much the rest of the country did: watching unending footage of the twin towers' collapse on TV and wondering why the president didn't seem to be taking charge of the situation. There was also a lot of anxiety close to home. In Columbus, Ohio, where I was living at the time, there was talk of closing the downtown and the airport.

But as the day continued, things improved a bit. My wife and I drove out to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to rehearse with our bandmate.

At that time, the extent of the casualties from the attack was still unknown, and my experience was that the 24/7 news cycle often led to exaggerated stories built around a sudden sense of excitement and little else. So I tried to get on with my day.

Then the phone call came.

It was one of my best friends, a friend with family in New York. When he did not find me at home, he tracked me to Yellow Springs.

My friend's brother worked in the World Trade Center. Out of respect for the family's privacy, I will call his brother Danny. Danny had gone to work that morning, and no one had been able to reach him after the planes had struck. My wife and I held hands with our friend across 500 miles, doing our best to suppress a rising tide of panic. Odds were that Danny was fine. After all, many of New York's communication and transportation networks were still down or jammed.

This was the start of a long-distance odyssey for my wife and me: phone calls to the East Coast every day or two, giving what support we could to Danny's family as they joined the ranks of the thousands who were calling hospitals, combing through Web sites and working endlessly to find their loved ones. And day after day, they didn't find him.

Ultimately, the story began to come out from other survivors. Danny had been in the WTC when the planes struck. He was a hero. He had helped others to the stairs; he unquestionably saved lives. But he didn't make it.

The loss was indescribable. Danny was someone very special. He was the sort of guy that most kid brothers only dream about: He shared all the cool stuff that big brothers have, like great music, comic books and really bad movies. I got to share in that on the couple of occasions when my friend and I roamed New York with Danny, three grown men giggling like naughty little boys and drawing stares. Danny was generous, funny and full of life: It was no wonder my friend loved his brother so much.

The reaction of Danny's family to the events surrounding his death made me proud to be an American in a way that nothing else in my life has. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, bigots, fearmongers and a great number of panicked people across the U.S. were excitedly shooting off their mouths about the need to round up and deport Muslims of all shapes and sizes in the name of protecting American freedom.

But Danny's family was having none of it. They had no truck with those who refused to see the WTC killers as individuals. Rounding up people because of what ethnic or religious group they belonged to was un-American and wrong. Danny's mother was angry that her loss was being used to curtail freedom in the name of fear.

You see, Danny's family is Jewish: They know only too well what a pogrom is. They refused to let their grief over the murderous action of a few sick terrorists become a pogrom against Muslims or anyone else. Their loss was not to be used as an excuse to retreat into fear.

As Americans, our greatest strength is that we judge people by what they do. To allow fear to drive us to the corrosive sectarian hatred that ravaged Europe for centuries and is now destroying Iraq would be to give Osama bin Laden a greater victory than he could have dared hope for. But Danny's family, who refused to allow the murder of their son to serve as an excuse for such hatred, shows that the American heart is strong.

Karl Colon is a writer, musician and library director living in Davenport, Iowa.

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