43.200 Minutes From Ground Zero -- 692,000 Heartbeats Later

Cliff McKenzie
New York City Combat Correspondent

GROUND ZERO PLUS 30, Oct. 11—Pillars of smoke rise from the rubble.  It is my reminder the Sentinels of Vigilance still speak to all the living from the tomb of Terrorism.    It is thirty days from impact, 43,200 minutes passed-- 692,000 heartbeats, at sixteen beats per minute since "first impact." 
           It is time to cry out "Semper Vigilantes" before Complacency creeps in again and smothers us in its shroud of indifference.
           I awoke this morning to the sound of the first Terrorist plane screaming overhead.  It was low, its gleaming aluminum belly blocking the sky as it shot toward the World Trade Center on its mission of destruction.   The sound was locked in my mind.  I heard it thirty-days ago.  I looked up then and saw it, wondering what it was--why a plane would be flying so low over Manhattan, so dangerously low?  The roar.  I heard the engines thrusting--the shrill of a missile heading toward its target.
          This morning I saw the faces of the passengers.  They were embossed by Fear.  Some were screaming.  Some praying.  Others quietly waited for their death, minds flashing to those they loved, others numbed by the madness of the moment.
           I saw the buildings crumbling at Ground Zero where I had gone that day.  I felt the rain of horror engulf me as it did 692,000 heartbeats ago when none of us were sure we would live after sucking in the fallout.  We were fearful some chemical or biological death awaited us after inhaling the soot that smothered us.  I heard the Voices screaming: "We're all going to die!"  I recalled the sobbing of the woman next to me, her face buried in a scarf of sorrow and Fear.
           That was all nearly three quarter million heartbeats ago.  It seemed like forever ago--like a nightmare that I imagined.  Yet, this morning I was awakened by the Fear that I might forget all the visions, all the feelings, all the horrors of that day--forget the bodies jumping out the windows--forget the cloud of destruction ramming its way down the street at us--or the pale death of concrete snow that littered the streets as though Death itself had taken up residence in Lower Manhattan.
           My fear was heightened yesterday by the first symptoms of the disease of Complacency.
           I went to my grandchildren’s apartment to help my wife bring home the laundry.  I was busy writing diaries, cleaning up the web page, answering e-mail.  I walked out of our apartment and got half-way to my daughter’s,  when I realized for the first time I had forgotten to wear my Semper Vigilantes armband.
          A coldness came over me.   How quickly we forget, I thought?   I had vowed to wear it every day--one day for every life given in defense of Vigilance.  But, twenty-nine days later, I rushed out with “other things” on my mind.  I forgot my primary purpose as a parent, a grandparent—to be a Sentinel of Vigilance.
          But I wasn’t.   I was a civilian without my armband.  I was like everyone else on the streets, trying to forget the horror, trying to move on with life.   I stopped in my tracks.  Should I go back and get it?  I was at the point of no return, halfway there.  I chose to go on, to not be late.
             But I felt naked. 
            I felt like I didn’t care any more.  Complacency—however small, however minute—had begun to ossify.  It bothered me I didn't turn back and get the armband.   It bothered me I had forgotten it to begin with.
           As I walked briskly to where the grandkids and my wife waited, I wondered how many days it would be before I would forget to put the armband on again.   I wondered how long it would take for normalcy to shove the memory of September 11 into a vault of “tragic remembrances” rather than “daily proactions”
           I created Semper Vigilantes to remind me of Terrorism's greatest weapon--Complacency.   To stay "Always Vigilant" meant not forgetting your armband.  Not forgetting to let others see it so it would remind them of their vulnerability, and hopefully spark them into not letting Complacency rust their memory.
           Complacency is so easy to acquire.   It demands no work at all.   Just as a frown doesn't.  But a smile forces seventeen muscles to work it up onto the face.  Complacency just sits and waits.   It waits patiently until we are lulled into a sense of comfort and security—then Terrorism strikes again--when we least expect it, where we least expect it.  It takes us off guard.   It shatters our trust and confidence that we are free of its threat.  It laughs in our faces.  Then it slithers back to its nest where it waits to Terrorize again, and again.
            I fear the Terror of Complacency.  I fear I might wake up one morning and not care anymore about writing an article, or the fact that no has sent a dollar, or that corporate sponsors don’t want to be part of something that might appear “reactionary.”   I fear I will let the Terrorism of Complacency drive me away from my mission of holding up the flag of Semper Vigilantes, of trying to get every Mayor in the country to promote it to his or her community, of trying to get parents to install it as a theme in their homes, of struggling to get businesses to display it on their windows, or, the media to offer it as a sign-off statement.
            People often vow to do things they never do.   Like vowing to go on a diet right after New Years, or swearing off your favorite food at Lent, or promising to quit smoking right after the pack is finished, or vowing to love and honor another in a marriage.
           Why should I expect Semper Vigilantes to become more important than losing weight, or stopping smoking, or giving up a favorite food for a few weeks, or staying married to the vows one took?   Yet I do.  
           I know in my heart and soul that Semper Vigilantes is far more than an anti-Terrorist slogan.  It can become a way of life to stave off all kinds of Terrors of the Soul—both those from “within” as well as those from “without.”    It can help children keep their self-respect, their dignity.  It can help families return to the basics of caring for each other more than for themselves.  It can unite neighborhoods, communities, towns, states and nations—if it is promoted, sold, driven by the force of Vigilance itself.
           That's why I woke up frightened this morning.  I woke up afraid that my own negligence, my own complacency about wearing the armband was symptomatic of what would happen as time passed if I wasn't Vigilant. 
          On this day, 692,000 heartbeats after the destruction of America’s innocence, I need to reestablish my vows to fight Terrorism with all my power and might.   In just a few days, on October 15, my 35th wedding anniversary will arrive.  I need to recommit myself to my marriage with same passion as I do my vigilance against Terrorism.   For marriage is about Vigilance.  It is about staving off the Terrors of Complacency between two people so they don’t drift apart and seek things that destroy their unity as one.  
           Semper Vigilantes requires the same recommitment on a daily basis as does a marriage, or any vow one makes for the good of his self or her self and others.   I must take today’s anniversary of the Birth of Semper Vigilantes  with the same passion I took  my marriage vows three and a half decades ago.
           Vigilance.  I must vow to Vigilance to compete with its arch rival, Complacency.
           Vigilance is the heartbeat of our security as a people, as a nation, as a world.  To achieve that goal, I must  listen to the heartbeats of the Sentinels of Vigilance, hear them telling me over and over--"Unified In Death and Life."  If I do not keep them alive in my mind and heart, they will become lost memories, statues on a monument to Terror, instead of living Sentinels of Vigilance I can call on daily to help fight off my Complacency in all forms and sizes and shapes.
            Listen.  Can you hear them?  692,000 heartbeats?   All beating for me, for you, for our children, for their children's children.   They are beating to keep us Vigilant.  When I no longer hear them, I will know I have forgotten.  I have become Complacent.  

            Cliff McKenzie

Go To:" The Art Of Surgical Terror"

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