Nineteen years ago this week, terrorists staggered America with attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
In the days that followed, people mourned together the nearly 3,000 deaths from those attacks – the people in the airplanes and the targeted buildings, and the first responders who died trying to rescue them. Video of the attacks played over and over and over, burning the moment into the minds of anyone with access to a screen.
The weekend after the attacks, with images of the pain and deaths still fresh in everyone’s minds, South Dakotans gathered in Pierre to dedicate a monument to the men and women from this state who served during World War II. The monument near Capitol Lake includes sculptures of six figures – a soldier, a Marine, a pilot, a sailor, a military nurse and a member of the Coast Guard. Bill Janklow, then governor and a Marine himself, spearheaded the effort to have the World War II memorial created.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks, some people counseled Janklow to cancel or postpone the dedication ceremony. I’m sure he considered the idea, briefly, but then he decided to go ahead, saying something to the effect that the men and women of World War II never postponed anything in their lives.
I don’t recall if I had any thoughts about whether to delay or push forward. Most likely, I just wanted to know which it would be, so that I could plan my coverage for the newspaper. Since the event, I’ve always been glad that it happened. Some 25,000 people came to the capital city that weekend, including an estimated 5,000 World War II veterans. They talked and laughed. They shared tears and stories of war. Their frequent comparisons of the terrorist attacks with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, seemed to give some perspective to people frightened by the September 11 tragedy.
I found a couple of newspaper clips from my coverage of the memorial dedication. In one story, I quoted Janklow as saying, “To too many in our society, courage is really something that’s weighed against last night polls. You (the WWII veterans) wrote the book on courage, and we’re going to learn from you, every single one of us.’’
Comparing the sense of unity and shared purpose among the dedication visitors that day – and evident in people across the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, really – with today’s divisive, angry climate, I feel a sadness as the anniversary of the terrorist attacks nears this year. Maybe it’s a sense of something precious squandered. We were one people for a time. These days, it’s hard to remember that. And the World War II weekend had lessons, if we had listened.
A veteran from Manderson said back then, “We feud over such tiny things in this country. Those of us who went through the war know that. We sometimes wonder what people are thinking. Why don’t they understand that there are important things, and there are things that don’t really matter?’’
In the days and weeks after 9/11, it seemed the entire nation understood the difference between what mattered and what didn’t. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, stood together in a show of unity on the steps of the nation’s Capitol. We really felt we were one people then. Somehow, as time went by, the distinction between important and unimportant got lost for too many of us.
During the dedication, according to my story clip, Janklow said, “All of us here know that America’s greatest generation is yet to come. It’s every new generation. Not one of you ever went looking for greatness, but you found it. You found it and you gave it to us as a legacy.’’
Too often, as in much of this column, I tend to focus on what we’ve lost. Still, I believe a majority of Americans, perhaps the silent majority, understands and appreciates the legacy of which Janklow spoke. That belief keeps me from despair. Anniversary of 9/11 nears, I have a hope that we will find ways to nurture that legacy.