Praise the Quiet Heroes

It's ten years later. Like most of us, my feelings about 9/11 seem to change with the latest event or tribute.

I'm crushed when I hear someone talk about their search for a loved one. I jumped up from the table and yelled, "yes!" so loud the dogs ran when I turned on the TV and saw that Bin Laden had been blown off the planet. I'm afraid when I think that another psychopath might get lucky again.

But, lately, I've been thinking a lot about heroes. I think about the ones that should have been, but ultimately couldn't carry the weight of the moment. I think about the ones we'll never know, or even know about, but should be able to recite by name.

President George W. Bush had his moment. Standing on the ruined fire truck, with a megaphone, telling the dust-covered firefighters: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." Sadly, it was a moment followed by slow-rolling tragedy. A rightful war was disrupted and diverted by one that began in misjudgment and misadventure. What we heard was the willful manipulation of battered emotions and molten anger to an end that, even today, none of the perpetrators has adequately explained -- no matter how many books they write.

Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of New York City, had his moment, striding through the acrid debris-field of lower Manhattan, a mask pressed to his face, being exactly the right leader, saying exactly what we needed to hear. Not many months later, he started to shrink before our eyes -- mean-spirited, self-serving, misleading, willing to be the host of Mob Week on AMC. It's one thing for a leader to be flawed. It's another to make you ask: "what were we thinking?"

Bernard "Bernie" Kerik, New York City Police Commissioner had his moment, standing beside the Mayor, those hooded gun-fighter eyes telling us "don't worry, New Yorkers, I got your back." He had days before going to Washington as Secretary of Homeland Security. Instead, he went to the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland Maryland, prison-mates with family-killer Jeffery McDonald and lobbyist from hell, Jack Abramoff. His trial and appeals left behind a slime trail of lies, thievery and sex.

I'm disappointed in the failures I know, but saddened, and a bit ashamed, by the heroes I don't. Who was the fireman who thought about turning around, but instead charged "up the stairs; into the fire?" I can see his face. I can learn his name. But I won't know his story. Not really.

Who was the office manager who waited until she was sure everyone was off the floor, before she was cut off from the stairs by a wall of fire. Who was at the wheel of the tugboats in New York Harbor who could have run to safety, but steered toward the flames to rescue people from the shore? Who were the anonymous people in windowless rooms who sifted mountains of data, day after day, for almost ten years, until they had enough to track Bin Laden to his lair? Who ran back into the Pentagon to pull friends and strangers out of the fire? Who broke down the cabin door on United Airlines Flight 93?

I would love to have seen some lasting, heroic leadership emerge from the darkness of September 11. Maybe sustainable authenticity is too much to ask in a time of always-on information and our propensity to create heroes, and then devour them in big bites.

So let's simply know that there were people who were the very best of us. They don't write many books. But they were there. They are real. And we can never forget them.