Ground Zero New York, Fifty Years Later©
as published in The Toronto Star, Nov 11/01

by Austin Repath

After the horrifying events of 9/11 there were years of considerable fear and apprehension.  Fortunately, the war between Muslims and Christians never materialized. In fact as the debate went on rather than polarizing the two extremes, people became more aware of the grievances and misunderstandings on both sides, as well as the many areas of common interest.
          Fortuitously or miraculously depending on your viewpoint a series of happen -stance events were instrumental in creating out of the ruins of the World Trade Center a space for  people to come together, share their grief and express their hope for a better world.
         It all started with a search for ideas as to what to do with the World Trade Center property. There were many people who wanted to rebuild the towers saying that this would prove to the world that terrorism could not destroy our way of life.  Others wanted the site to become a memorial for the victims who had died in the collapse of the towers.
         As the debate went on, more and more people started coming to New York not out of curiosity so much as out of respect and a need to somehow participate in the reclaiming of this special place.
         It soon became apparent that people had a need to stand in Ground Zero, to somehow take in the horror and the tragedy that had occurred within  these few blocks of downtown Manhattan, and even more important to stand in silent witness to that day that had closed the twentieth century. But they also to begin to think about laying the ground work for a new millennium that would be more compassionate.
         In response to the numbers of people wishing to visit the site, the City of New York put up a temporary walkway encircling the perimeter, to help people see for themselves the devastation, and pay their homage to this place which had been sanctified by the death of so many people.
         Over time, a simple ritual evolved.  People would circle the site, watching intently as crews continued the clean-up and began preparations for what was to rise out of the ashes. One day a television crew filmed the  people in the circle, most of them complete strangers, holding hands.
          When this first happened no one knew for sure, but after that television clip, the hand-holding became an traditional part of the visit.  Then a television network decided to dedicate a station to Ground Zero.  Camcorders located around the perimeter focused in on the center of the site. The feed was world-wide, 24 hours a day.
          At first it had seemed like a gimmick, something viewers would quickly tire of, but it caught on. Some people admitted using the channel as a focus for their prayers.
          Then a group of concerned New Yorkers came forward with a radical use for Ground Zero. They suggested that the site be slowly recreated into "a world commons", a place that would offer remembrance, a global safe haven, and a platform for those who needed to speak their minds.
          The platform idea proved to be more divisive than all the others put together. No one wanted to give a public forum to any extremist. This part of the plan was almost scrapped, until one day, some fanatic did get into the center of the site.  He stood there in front of the cameras  addressing the people of the world with his message of anarchy and hate. There not being any sound system at that point, he simply lifted aloft a series of large posters for the world to see.
          The response to his message made history.  Around the perimeter walkway stood the ring of people from all parts of the world who were making their pilgrimage to Ground Zero.  They watched helpless and horrified.
          No one  remembered who started it, but gradually a refrain went around the circle. "Rebel, heretic, a thing to flout, you draw a circle to keep us out. But love and I have the wit to win. We make a circle and take you in."
          Over and over again these simple words, shaped from some half remembered bit of high school poetry, were repeated until they rose like an anthem of acceptance.  A local newspaper the following morning had suggested that in a country built on freedom of speech, this was as good as any way to meet the dissenting voice.
          Out of this event came the public will and courage to try a speaker's forum, an open mike to the world.  Anyone, regardless of belief or principle, could speak his or her mind on any subject without fear.
          The one caveat was that there had to be the witnesses.  The circle had to be complete with the joining of hands before the  podium was opened.  And always came some version of the chant at the end of any diatribe. ôLove and I have the wit to win. We make a circle and take you in" 
          People around the world watched on television sets, to listen and to marvel at such a display of freedom and acceptance that was able to embrace even the vilest of words, and it needs to be said, just as often to be moved to tears by words of wisdom and moments of heart-felt honesty and truth.
          All of Ground Zero has changed.  Now, over 50 years after September 11, it is something akin to sacred space.  Responding to an international competition, an architectural company from, of all places, a small nation in the Middle East, won the design contest, and built an exquisite park with fountain, garden  and remembrance wall where people could honour the victims of the tragedy and seek new ways to come together.
          More recently Common Ground, as it has been renamed, is a place that  fully honours the democratic tradition of free speech, bears witness to a way of containing the outpouring of mind with what has become known as the refrain of the open heart.
          Yearly on the vigil of September 11th, the names of those who died in the name of freedom and liberty are read aloud.  Maintained by the United States of America, as a gift to the people of the world regardless of race or creed, this sacred grove offers a meeting place for all. Over the years it has taken its place along with Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca as a place of pilgrimage.

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