Let us not forget: Life is too fragile to be taken for granted

Friday, September 14, 2001 at 1:00am

There are many political things to be said about the terrorist attacks that tore through the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, but our first thoughts are personal. The casualty figures are uncertain as we write, but many hundreds of children, perhaps thousands, have lost their parents, without warning, without ever getting a chance to say good bye.

Those children will pay the biggest price for America's freedom, because it is the virtue of openness that makes this nation so vulnerable to evil.

It's already commonplace to say that the United States will never be the same, that this is another Pearl Harbor, a day that will live in infamy, and for the nation, that might well be true. But it is certainly true for the families of the victims. On Sept. 11, 2001, a hole was torn in their lives that will never heal over.

Unfortunately, we've been through this before. Steve's uncle, Lee Rogow, was killed in a military plane crash at age 36, leaving behind two small children who are adults now, with children of their own. Steve's cousins have few real memories of their dad, only a small collection of writings he left behind.

We've tried in our way to memorialize Lee, naming our first child after him. Think how many children will be named for a victim of Sept. 11, a victim they never knew, and who never knew them.

Cokie's dad, Hale Boggs, was also killed in a plane crash, 29 years ago next month. If he were alive today he'd have 11 great grandchildren and another on the way. We tell them stories and show them pictures. A few of those kids even bear his name. But memories fade, and so do photos. Twenty-nine years from now, who will remember those who died in flames this week?

Three of Hale's great grandchildren are our grandchildren, two of them born just a few days ago in California. And as we were visiting them last weekend, we were reminded again how fragile life is.

Steve flew back to Washington on the day before the hijackings. The next day, Cokie was in the airport, waiting to board a flight home, when air traffic was halted. Cokie's mother was actually in the air, heading for New Orleans, when all planes were grounded, and she landed safely in Birmingham. Nothing but fate and fortune kept any of us from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A friend's daughter called from New York with a chilling story. A man walked numbly into a deli where the daughter was talking with friends, not long after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. "My wife works on the top floor of that building," he cried, "and we have a month-old baby. What am I going to do?" What, indeed?

There are many larger points to be made about this attack. It is not the fault of the Jews, even though Washington's alliance with Israel helps spawn anti-American virulence in the Arab world. Standing by your friends is always the right thing to do, even when loyalty comes at a cost.

It is not the fault of individual Arabs, either, even though pictures of street celebrations in places like Damascus make the blood run cold, and some Arab leaders openly condone terrorism. As a nation, we still bear the shame of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II, and we cannot indulge another spasm of xenophobia.

And we cannot let the terrorists win. Of course, security will be tightened enormously in many places. That's probably unavoidable. But core freedoms, to speak and to travel, have to be protected and preserved.

This is also a testing time for George W. Bush. One of a president's most important roles is to serve as the national chaplain in times of grief and outrage. Ronald Reagan did it well after the Challenger disaster, and Bill Clinton, who was slow to grasp this dimension of the job, came of age after Oklahoma City. The country needs its new president to rise to this moment.

But our deepest feelings are for the families who have been crushed by this insanity. None of us can do much for them. But it might be a good idea to help your own kids say a prayer for the children whose lives were changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001.

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

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