How A Three-Year-Old Brought The Towers Back To Life

How A Three Year Old Brought The Twin Towers Back To Life
Cliff McKenzie--New York City Combat Correspondent

            Ground Zero Plus 24, October 5--”Look...GMa!  They came back!  They came back!”

            Sophia’s face ignited.  She looked at the Chrysler Building. She was disoriented, thinking that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center she witnessed crumble on September 11 had magically reappeared.

            Earlier that morning she was on the MTA bus back to the East Village from Chelsea Pier where she takes tumbling.  Her grandmother (GMA Lori) escorted the three-year-old Sophia who found great joy in pressing her face against the bus window to watch the city sights pass by.  

As the bus wheezed to a stop next to an eighteen-wheeler truck parked along the street, Sophia came to life.  It was long and white, with nothing printed on the side—a perfect canvass with no painting.

“GMa...Look...we can paint a picture on that truck!”

            “What kind of picture, Sophia?”

             “Of those buildings that fell down.”

* * *

            I thought about the conversation as GMa related it to me at Starbucks on Astor and Cooper Square where I try and do the bulk of my writing.

            Sophia’s thirty-six-month-old mind wanted to memorialize them, as so many pictures have to her young, impressionable eyes.   Then, she saw a building sprouting up over the skyline, and her mind wanted what was destroyed to be resurrected, brought back to its original state of “normalcy.”

            Even three-year-olds want peace and tranquility...want closure.

            I found it interesting she didn’t say “let’s draw pictures of bombs dropping on the bad people who blew it up.”   Or, “let’s hunt down the responsible and bring justice to the crime.”

            Three-year-olds want the world they knew to be brought back into order.   They want their divorced parents to remarry, they want the toy they cannot find to be replaced, they want the light on in the dark so the boogeyman can’t get them.

            Innocence wants a return to innocence.

            Perhaps we all do.

            if we could turn back the clock, what would we have done to prevent the disaster of September 11?   What we do to insure our three-year-olds of America and the world wouldn’t carry around in the seeds of their deep, complex emotions that an icon of innocence and order they had known since birth was now a mass of twisted metal groaning in a sea of concrete rubble?   And beneath that rubble, the remains of thousands of innocent victims?

            One day, when her innocence crosses the line from the magic  of make believe into harsh world of reality, she will connect the disappearance of the World Trade Center to a tragedy that cannot be repaired as her mind did when she wanted to believe the Chrysler Building was the Twin Towers.

            But what will do now to insure that the Twin Towers will only be a memory to her and not the beginning chain of Terrorist events to cripple and demoralize the spirit of America?   How many “surprise attacks” can the nation’s “innocent” withstand before they become “realists” at three years old.

            In Vietnam I had seen the loss of innocence in the faces of the children.   They stared us, wary, cautious, not like children as we marched through their villages.   We were the “enemy”--not state’s enemies, not enemies of their country--but enemies of their order--their peace, their tranquility, their security.

            They often stood against their mother’s or father’s leg, clutching the black pajamas, their eyes empty, staring as a mouse might a hungry cat lurking just at the door of its nest.   Their innocence had been taken from them generations ago--first by the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans, not to count their own internal strife.

            They weren’t children of awe and magic, who believed the cow could jump over the moon, or the cat could run away with the spoon.  They were children of brutal reality, that the Beast of Terror could, in a moment of anger, burn their village, kill their parents, torture their father or uncle.

            I wondered if continued Terrorism in the Unified States would kill the children’s magic--destroy their innocence as it had the Vietnamese children, or any children of any country torn by strife, pockmarked by the shrapnel of war and violence?   Of course, I knew the answer.  We all know it.

            Before GMa and Sophia stopped by Starbucks to have a juice and a cup of coffee, I had been talking with a young man named Scott.   He has seen me writing daily and wanted to know my opinion about the “resolution” of the war against Terrorism.

            He wanted to know what I thought about going in and killing everyone responsible, blowing them to bits as a signal to future Terrorism that America would retaliate with vicious anger against all enemies and those who sheltered them.

            “I can’t answer that, Scott.   That’s not what I do.”

            He wasn’t quite sure what I meant.

            “Don’t you think we should level them?   Make an example?”

            “I wish I could say yes, that would stop them.  But I can’t.   I don’t think blowing away people is the answer.   In Vietnam we killed over a million people over the length of the war--violence didn’t win then.”

            “But that was different?”

            “Was it?”  I asked the question more of myself than to respond to him.  “If we had dropped a nuclear weapon and blown everyone away all at once would it have been any different?   It just took us a decade to kill a million people and find out killing others isn’t the solution.”

            “But this is different.  This is a holy war.  We blow up all their mosques.  We put all the Muslims in detention camps like we did the Japanese.   We show them we mean business.”

            “And, maybe we create more Terrorists.  Maybe Terrorism creates Terrorism.”

            ‘Are you anti-war?”

            “No.  I was a trained killer in the Marine Corps.  I could go cut off bin Laden’s head, carve out his heart and eat it in front of the world if I thought that might provide safety and security to my children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren.   Retaliation is a fix, not a solution.   It appeases those who hunger for the blood of revenge, but it doesn’t cure the disease of Hate.  If I thought it would, I would be the first in line to chop of the perpetrator’s head.”

            “So what do you see as the solution.”

            “I only see the future, the long-range.   I’m not equipped to answer the immediate needs of sating people’s pain, of restoring America’s power in the eyes of other nations, of the need to reform alliances with other nations so our economy can flourish again quickly and faith in our democracy can be restored to those who look at us as the champions of progress.   That’s all about politics and foreign and economic policy--and, of course, about taxes and funding and getting votes in the future.    That’s not my area of expertise.”

            “What is?”  Scott sat back, a little dubious that I had swept so quickly away the immediate solution of violence.

            “Terrorism has one goal--to disrupt society.  To turn people into bodies of fear and apprehension.  It preys on all who want security and consistency and the threat of violence removed from their lives.   It attacks one’s religious beliefs--and makes one wonder where God was when all the innocent were killed, and why He let such a tragedy happen.   It undermines the government and defense strategies, weakening our faith that our policemen of safety are truly able to defend us.  And, it proves the impregnability of Goliath.  It shows how a single David can sling a rock and make the giant crumble to his knees.”

            “So what is your suggestion.”

            “Vigilance.”  I pointed to my Semper Vigilantes armband.  “Scott, I truly believe when every home in America understands and displays the Semper Vigilantes logo, and subscribes to the twenty-five hundred year old message that brought it life on September 11, 2001, that Terrorism will no longer have a stage upon which to act out its fear and intimidation.  And when you take the audience away, the players move on to another place where they can find the unsuspecting, the unaware, the complacent.   And, if they can’t find them anywhere, then they fold up their tents and go home.”

            “But won’t that take a long time?  What about right now?”

            “I leave the ‘right now’ to others.   If they decide to bomb or eradicate nests of Terrorists, if they decide to rip apart the civil rights of Americans by dismantling the Constitution under the guise of a “clear and present danger,” then they will.  And the public will let them because they have no other solution, no other flag to rally around, no other choice.  And, government will only issue to the people the choices they, the government, can control.  They will not encourage the elimination of Terrorism to the people.  Governments are afraid of the people, they always have been.   So they try and appease their hungers, their thirsts with reactive rather than proactive actions.  Whatever the immediate response, I have no say in that matter.   The government has already secretly planned their response, and will execute it without asking Americans what they think.   It’s the old--better to ask for forgiveness than permission--strategy.  And, in some ways, it is necessary.  In others, it may be deadly.”

            “Why deadly?”

            “People may falsely believe the government is in charge of resolving the issue.   They may be seduced into giving over their rights to the government so they don’t have to be bothered with insuring the ‘bad guys’ pay for their crime against America.   And, most of all, they may feel helpless.   Who are they to respond?   They are mothers and fathers, workers, mere citizens of the most powerful country in the world.  What could they possibly do against a complex enemy such as Terrorism which hides in the shadows of third-world nations, appearing like a viper to strike its venom and then slipping back into the underbrush to await another moment when the unsuspecting will let down their guard and become vulnerable?   Americans are abdicating daily their responsibility to preserve and protect their land, shoveling that duty off to the military, the politicians, the religious leaders as though they were mere specks of dust from the fallout of the World Trade Center.”

            “Are you anti-government?”

            “No, not a bit.  We need order.  We need control.  We need management of our democratic system.  We need all the weasel words politicians use to pretend they are for when they are against.  We need all the back-room bargaining for the ‘pork’ politicians barter with for a vote here or a vote there.  And we need the military--we need a force armed and ready to strike at the immediate threat.  But what we don’t need is, when the smoke of reaction clears, to live with the militant, draconian ravages of a reactive government and a complacent citizenry.   Government is notorious for forgetting to ‘un-enact’ their power.   Once they get what they want, they tend to create bureaucracy  of power that are hard, if not impossible to dismantle.   And, as far as the citizens’ rights are concerned, it is the nature of government to take and not give back.  That gives them more power, more control.   The word itself--government--means “I lord over you.”   And the more we give up our rights, the more lordship we suffer.   I am only anti-government imbalance, anti-government excess.”

            “What the hell then is your solution?”   Scott’s Voice was growing impatient.   I listened to myself talk.   I did not know where all the words were coming from--maybe from Thomas Paine, or Winston Churchill, or Peter Zenger, or Alexander Hamilton, or maybe Socrates, or Plato, or Herbert Spencer.   But they came.

            “It’s way simple,” I said, trying to make my words camp, modern, M-TVish so I wouldn’t be too antediluvian.   “Parents in the ninety-million households of America become Sentinels of Vigilance.”


            I told him the quick story of the Battle of Thermopylae and the poet Simonides.

            “If each parent, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, sister, brother, cousin, knows and understands that Terrorism’s first line of defense is not the swords of government, but the belief a child has that he or she is being protected against it by those who love him or her the most, then Terrorism will be shut down.   If the children cannot be Terrorized, then who can be?”

            Scott sat back.   He pondered the question as I went on.

            “If at the dinner table when a family says a prayer before a meal, it remembers to include in the prayer an acknowledgement of the Sentinels of Vigilance--a tribute to those who died that day on the Second Tuesday of September--the child begins to learn that his or her parents are teaching the principle of Vigilance, and destroying the nature of Fear which the Terrorists use as their sustenance.”

            “How does Vigilance destroy Fear in a child?”

            “All fear is based on the unknown, the unexpected, the boogeyman.   Parents who shine a light on fear, on the unknown, expose it.  To tell a child that they, as a family, honor those who died that day as Sentinels of Vigilance, standing as reminders that everyone must not forget, must stand up against Terrorism’s hunger to feed on Fear, the child understands he is being protected from within.   Terrorists don’t blow up things to achieve material destruction, they seek emotional destruction.   Fear spreads like a virus.   Sometimes it hides under all the denial, waiting to explode.  Parents who shelter their children from the Truth do them a disservice, for if and when Terror attacks again, the children will not be prepared.  They will suffer more, perhaps deeper wounds of insecurity.”

            “But won’t that turn the children into those blank-eyed children you talked earlier about in Vietnam, who lost their innocence to reality?”

            “Not if it is done from a positive, offensive posture.   Children have countless fears.   Parents only hear about a few of them, but inside each child, as with adults, lurks many unspoken, unresolved fears.   Fears are part of our nature.  They aren’t bad.  They are tools we use to mature when we learn to overcome them.   Sentinels of Vigilance are there not to stop Terrorism, but to deny it room to live in the minds it attacks.   No one can stop a madman or madwoman from an act of destruction.  But, teaching a child to understand and deal with his or her fears of all sizes and shapes, prepares the child to shield itself from any random Terrorist attack.   And, as I said earlier, when Terrorists realize Fear will not be the fallout of their attacks, they will be emasculated.”

            “Do you really think everyone will pray for the Sentinels of Vigilance?  That seems like a lot for people who don’t pray, or aren’t religious.”

            “That’s only one way--praying.   You can talk about it in bedtime stories...about the Great Spartans of Vigilance who stand over the child to help fight away their fears of the boogeyman.   Or, you can put up the symbol of Semper Vigilantes so the child sees it lives inside the house and will feel its protective arm around the child’s shoulders.  And maybe when the child is full of fear and no one is around, the child will look at it and feel the sense of protection, love, warmth radiating from thousands who died on September 11 to remind us to remain vigilant.  I don’t know who will do what, or how they will do it...but I do know why they will.”

            “And that is...?”

            “Most people are willing to give their lives for their job--many not even for their country.  Some, not even for their wives or husbands, or brothers or sisters, or relatives.   But, when the rubber hits the road, most every parent will protect their children with their lives--will sacrifice themselves for their offspring.    It’s a natural law, a drive that most living creatures are duty-bound to uphold.   Parents who think about the impact Terrorism has on their child will see it as a means of destroying their innocence, killing their spirit of life.   That suggests if a parent is an atheist or agnostic or hates God or his or her religion, he or she might put their own selfish angers and resentments to the side to protect their children with a prayer.  It means that those parents who see the events of September 11 only the beginning and not the end, and realize there is no human way on earth the Unified States government can protect our society from acts of Terrorism with force, or by giving up our civil rights, will have an epiphany that they are duty-bound to give up their own complacency for their child’s life...give up their own denial to make their child aware that Fear of Terrorism kills a child’s innocence just like a bullet can the body, or as horrifically as poison in the air.   If a parent sees Terrorism as a threat to his or her child’s life--then that parent will act.  But not until then.”

            “You think you have the power to make that happen?”

            “No.   Power lies in knowledge.  I’m a correspondent.  I just offer the world words to think about.   I pray they will listen, act, protect.   But people have the power to choose to protect their children or neglect them.”

            “You think someone who doesn’t subscribe to Semper Vigilantes is negligent?”

            “Not if they subscribe to teaching their children to stand up to fear.   All Semper Vigilantes is, is a historical reference the children can verify.   True knowledge is timeless.  Semper Vigilantes is only a modernization of a very very old message.   One that I believe lends credibility to the skeptical.   I personally don’t care what is said, as long as Complacency, or its threat, is replaced  with Vigilance of some kind or nature.   But I believe that Semper Vigilantes is as good a theme as any.   And, the only negligent parent I can think of is the one who doesn’t care what happens to his or her child in the future.  I had a father like that.  So I know there are those type of parents who exist.  Who turn their backs on their children’s fears.   Who perpetuate them with emotional violence, physical violence, molestation, poverty, bitterness.   These parents are the worst Terrorists--far more dangerous than bin Laden by vast amounts.   They cause a child to be ashamed of his or her own shadow, to walk in shoes of self-defeat, self-depreciation.  Semper Vigilantes is as much or more about the protection of a child’s innocence at home as it is from the enemies without.”

            I looked up.  I heard a little Voice calling:  “GPa...GPa.”

            It was my granddaughter, Sophia, and Lori, my wife, returning from the tumbling class at Chelsea Pier.  They stopped by for a cool drink and a cup of coffee.

            “Don’t get up,” Lori said to Scott as he offered her his seat.

            “No, I was just going.   Thanks, Cliff.”

            I handed Scott my business card which has my web address on it.  “Look this over, Scott.  It will tell you a lot more than what I’ve just said.  And, when you’re finished, send me one dollar to NYC-CC, 45 East Seventh St., Box 127, 10003.”

            Scott looked quizzically at me.


            “I’m still a capitalist, Scott.   I have to earn enough to keep writing and buying coffee at Starbucks.”

            “Tell you what,” he said, “if I like what I read, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”

            “No, no,” I replied, “I’m a capitalist.   Instead of buying me a coffee, send me two dollars then.  I like cash.”

            We laughed.   I didn’t want to let him think I was too far out  on the limb.

            Lori told me the story of Sophia wanting to paint the picture of the Twin Towers on the side of the truck.  And, about her seeing the “buildings reborn” in another building.   I watched Sophia’s tiny body squirming in the chair, drinking water and juice, her eyes innocent, her small body twisting about in different shapes as though she were a pretzel.   I caught her eyes looking at my Semper Vigilantes armband.

            It was then I knew why I wore it every day.


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