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September 11, 2009

Today, the nation will pause to reflect on the events eight years ago in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The devastation and terror visited upon these places and the evil intentions that motivated them still haunt us, and probably always will.

I woke to news of the attacks half a world away in New Zealand.  The clock radio came on to the 6:00am news bulletin on Radio New Zealand, but it didn’t sound like any other news bulletin I heard before or since.  The timbre and tone of the announcer’s voice was as intense and unbelieving as the words he uttered and the scenes and events they described.

Email messages and text messages from friends and family in New York brought into sharp focus for us the scale and scope of the events we were then watching loop across the televisions screen on CNN International.  My wife and I knew many people either in or near the World Trade Center or who had responded there with the emergency services as events unfolded.  Likewise, at the Pentagon.

Americans living abroad, as I was then, often find themselves called upon or expected to speak for or in defense of their country and its policies.  Expats always serve as unofficial ambassadors without portfolio.  Especially in places like New Zealand where people consider themselves friends, but not necessarily allies.  As friends they feel free to criticize, but as true friends always do, they come through for you when you need them most.

Our New Zealand friends and many more strangers did not look to us for answers on that day.  Instead of asking us what it all meant or trying to get us to think about why it had happened, they reached out and embraced us, stroked our hair, wiped the tears from our cheeks, and told us that we would be alright.  Maybe not right away, but in time.

The most amazing things happened to us that day and in the days that followed.  Although we tried to carry on our routines as usual, nothing we did worked exactly as we planned.  We remained distracted and unfocused.

In public, people took unusual notice of us upon hearing our American accents and would come up to us and ask if we were okay.  When we put an American flag in front of our house, people started piling flowers, candles, and notes beneath it as if it were a shrine, which is in fact what it became for our isolated little corner of the world.

The firefighters I worked with held a memorial service for their fallen brothers in the FDNY.  As they stood silently at attention in front of the fire station dipping the fire service standard as a mark of respect.  Cars and people stopped in the street, got out of their cars, bowed their heads and joined us in prayer.

Later, when the brigade hosted the World Firefighter Games, which they dedicated to the fallen, they joined the Christchurch City Council in dedicating the Firefighters’ Memorial in a park next to the central fire station.  The monument features a sculpture constructed of steel salvaged from the stricken towers.

When the steel arrived in New Zealand, in accordance with Maori custom, an elder of the local iwi or tribe was asked to say a prayer to lift tapu or ward off the evil that these artefacts might bring with them to their new home.  As the container opened revealing its contents, he turned to his hosts and said to them the evil accompanying the cargo was too strong.  It could not be neutralized.  It would take more than words to make things right.

Although he was right, he said the words anyway.  And the words made a difference.  They didn’t make everything right again, but they gave us hope that if we kept talking and kept believing what we said and started acting in accordance with those beliefs that we could make things better even if we could not undo what had been done.

I cannot visit the memorial even today without tearing up.  I remember fallen friends who lost their lives when the towers fell.  I mourn the loss of innocence, especially for my children who saw their parents scared and crying and could not comprehend how something so far away could have such a sudden and jarring impact on them.

When I leave the memorial, I always feel better though.  This feeling comes from remembering not what was done to us that day or the hatred that motivated it and how we have persevered since.  I leave the memorial renewed and hopeful because it makes me reflect on how my brother and sister firefighters, cops, and EMTs responded that day.  I look forward to the future because I cannot forget the simple kindnesses I saw New Yorkers exchange with total strangers nor those extended my family and me by New Zealanders, many of whom we did not know.

I know things will keep getting better because other people won’t let themselves forget either.  They remember not how helpless they felt, but how it felt to help others and to know that they too made a huge difference by taking the time to do something simple and kind not out of a sense of obligation but out of love and compassion.

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