Dallas, where I spent a few days this month on family business, evokes the memory of two events that inspired great national unity: the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
The shooting that claimed Kennedy is memorialized at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, where assassin Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots. A striking exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Library recalls the 9/11 attacks that unfolded on Bush’s watch.
Since my son, a high school senior, loves history, I thought I’d take him to the Sixth Floor Museum, but it was closing for the day as we made our plans. We headed to the Bush library instead.
The first thing that library visitors see as they enter the exhibits are two pieces of twisted steel from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The lengths of steel reach to the ceiling like a gnarled tree — gruesomely bent and bare, but standing nonetheless.
I stood in their shadow for a while, a lump forming in my throat, my eyes welling a bit. It was the end of the day, and for a long while, there were no other visitors to nudge me along. Eventually, a museum docent broke the silence.
“The names are all there,” she said, pointing to a nearby wall. In type as dense as a page from the phone book were listed the thousands of victims of the 9/11 attacks. “We put them in alphabetical order so that people could find them easily,” the docent told me, leaning in so she wouldn’t have to raise her voice. She spoke softly and somberly, like a mourner at a grave. “We had two visitors today at different times looking on the wall for someone they knew.”
The docent didn’t seem greatly surprised that two museum patrons on a random winter Saturday would have such a direct connection to the attacks. It was a reminder that America, as big as it often seems to be, is probably smaller than we think. The country surely felt small on Sept. 11, 2001. There was an intimacy to the nation’s grief that spoke of village solidarity, a community joined in common purpose.
My son was 9 months old when the towers fell. I clearly remember, as I rocked him to sleep that night, thinking that we would still be fighting the war on terror when he reached manhood.
Of course, I thought about that long-ago prediction as I stood in the museum with my son, now 18 and taller and stronger than I am. “Never forget,” we told each other back then. Those names on the wall haunt us still. What we have forgotten is what binds us together — and we shouldn’t need another tragedy to teach us again.