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The Twin Towers' long shadows

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It's hard not to think about terrorist attacks these days -- what with the Boston bombings, talk of a second bomb in Times Square, New York and the foiling of a plot to derail a Via Rail passenger train.

Last week, I had the opportunity to witness the impact of terrorism up close and personal, during a moving visit to the National September 11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. The mental picture of the two pools -- each representing the exact footprints of the Twin Towers -- is still lodged firmly in my memory banks.

What we sometimes forget is these types of horrendous attacks take a huge emotional toll on people -- and extend over long periods of time. The pain, suffering and visceral sense of loss do not simply disappear over the ensuing years. It endures.

It also has a way of continuously resurfacing, at the oddest of times no doubt, and often without any warning. Perhaps it's just a picture, an image, a word or even a smell.

During our visit to New York City, the barely healed emotional scars of 9/11 were once again opened. This time, the painful memories came flooding back with the stunning discovery of a piece of the landing gear from one of the Boeing aircraft thought to have crashed into the World Trade Center. It was located three blocks north of the memorial and wedged between two office buildings (just behind the so-called Ground Zero mosque site).

"It's still heartbreaking, all these years later," Scott Brown told the New York Times. "Even with the 9/11 memorial, nothing looks quite right around here." Ilila Tahlov, who works as a hairstylist just across from the two buildings on Park Place, still remembers the "horrible day" when the planes crashed into the WTC. She tearfully told the newspaper: "This is too painful to reopen, too painful to think about every day. Our hearts still need time to heal."

Significantly, the intermingling of memory and heartache seems to have a life of its own. I saw it first-hand at Ground Zero.

It's important to remember only 60 per cent of the victims of the 9/11 attacks were actually identified. For hundreds of others, mixed in with the dust and rubble, Ground Zero was their final resting place.

The memorial is sacred ground for sure, and it has a solemn and grim feel to it. But the poignant single Survivor Tree west of the south pool (planted on the World Trade Center plaza in the 1970s and nursed back to health after the attacks), the sound of the 30-foot waterfalls and the dark centre void where the water flows all create a soothing sense of peacefulness.

It's heart-rending to see the names of those killed (including first responders) at Ground Zero inscribed in bronze parapets around the two pools, especially when you see beside some names "and her unborn child."

You could see people in tears, others huddling with family members, while many other onlookers were simply overwhelmed by the enormity of what transpired there.

Although visitors to the three-hectare memorial are asked to be respectful and refrain from leaving personal mementoes or tributes, not everyone could resist. We saw a tiny pink flower and a small American flag on a wooden stick carefully placed by two of the names. I say small, but it was powerful nonetheless.

On a final note, ahead of us in the lineup at the 9/11 Memorial gift shop was a middle-aged New York firefighter. When the sales clerk asked him whether he wanted to contribute the remaining change from his purchase to the memorial fund, I'll never forget what he said angrily in reply: "I already gave 343 firefighters (the number of the NYFD's finest killed at the site) here."

You couldn't help but feel his pain and anguish. And that's all part of the emotional damage acts of terrorism leave behind.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J13

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