They gave of themselves

They gave of themselves

What is left to say that has not already been said about that beautifully warm and sunny Tuesday morning, Primary Day in New York City, when the sky blackened and so did our lives? Our hearts sank that day and our country – and the world – reacted to the sudden horror first with disbelief, then with anger, then with a realization that nothing would ever be the same again.

9-1-1 were the numbers we dialed in an emergency, when we were desperate for police, or firefighters, or emergency medical technicians. In the collapse of two towers in the crowded tip of Manhattan island, the crash of a jumbo jet in a Pennsylvania field, and the opening of a gaping burning hole on the side of the very building that signified our nation’s protection against attack, those numbers took on a new, more ominous meaning. 9-11 began 9/11.

There were many lessons to come out of 9/11, but one stands out far above all others. People talk much and write even more about how we are a people apart from one another, a “me generation” run amok. This was especially said to be true about the denizens of New York City, that cold complex of granite and steel and glass filled with people too busy to give you the time of day.

On 9/11, people gave more than the time of day. They gave of themselves. People trained in emergency response rushed to the ruins of lower Manhattan, into the clouds of death, not away from them. What a debt we owe to the emergency responders from all over the tristate area and even way beyond. How sad we are that so many have died because responding made them ill. Indeed, how sad we are that it took Congress so long to recognize that.

There were the “second responders,” people who sought to bring relief to the workers at the WTC site or in Fresh Kills-people like the owners of Nino’s and other eateries, who provided them with free food and a place to “chill,” or like Dr. David Abend, of Oradell, who saw to their medical and physical needs on site.

Then there were the “ordinary people,” people of extraordinary tenderness whose names we may never know. On our pages this week, for example, we read of the Chinese grocer who made his telephone available to strangers desperate to call home and tell their families they were alive and safe. We read of the chasidim – often villified as much by their own as by outsiders – who stood at the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge with bottles of cold water and words of comfort to all who fled Manhattan on foot. There were the nurses who fought their own emotions to keep those in their care calm. There were many other “there weres.”

Another lesson that stands out is not as heartening. Too many of us, it seems, were – and remain – quick to trade some of our own precious freedoms for a feeling of safety and security. We do not know what Osama bin Laden hoped to accomplish by the 9/11 attacks, but we do know that he hated this country and all it stood for. We also know that he believed in a world ruled by an extreme interpretation of Islam.

It is not too much of a stretch, then, to assume that he wanted us to be so scared of him and his ilk that we would forego the very things that made us better than him. He understood what many of us no longer are certain of in the wake of 9/11: We are secure only because we are free. That is the true strength of America.

Compromising freedom for security almost certainly will lead to the downfall and demise of the America we know. Osama bin Laden, rather than his name and his memory being blotted out, will have won.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America went to war – in Afghanistan first and then Iraq. Nearly 3,000 men and women died on 9/11. Thousands more, most of them like Daniel Agami (Page 16) wearing the uniform of the United States or one of its allies, died on those faraway battlefields. All of them are counted among our honored dead. All of them, it is safe to say, cherished their freedom just as they fought to protect ours.

God forbid that there should ever be another 9/11. God forbid, too, that the lives sacrificed on that day and in the days and years that followed should have been in vain because we allowed Osama bin Laden to frighten us out of our freedoms.