In the meeting room at the Albion fire station, a number has been permanently affixed to one corner of the marker board: 343.
That many firefighters were murdered on September 11, 2001. It doesn't include civilians, or the police, EMS, and Port Authority workers who died doing their duty that day. The message of that number is very simple: Never forget.
You'd think that would be hard to do. On 9/11 I said, "For the rest of history, the world will be divided into two time periods: before today and after today."
A week later, after reflecting on history, I made a different prediction: "Within a few years it will seem like this attack has been totally forgotten."
I was right on both counts.
It's human nature. We don't want to dwell on the past; most of us don't worry about the future, either. Now, more than ever, we live in the present. An old adage says those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it, an adage people have forgotten. America – all the free world, really -- has also forgotten that we're at war, a war we can still lose. We pay lip service to the past, and get impatient with any problem that takes more than a day to solve. Politicians can see a little way into the future -- to the next election. That's pretty much it.
Military and police officials have stopped numerous attempted attacks that they told us about, and many more that they haven't. But there's an irony in their newfound effectiveness: For every year that goes by without the spilling of more civilian blood, we get more complacent, more unwilling to support the people fighting this new world war, more convinced that It Won't Happen to Us.
It will. If they can't attack us big, they'll attack us small. If they can't hit us inside America, they'll hit Americans outside the country, or one of our allies, or any free nation just because they're free. They're out there, right now, planning. Obtaining arms. Training. Here and there bands of overworked men and women, some in uniform and some not, fend off new attacks, figure out where the next will come from, and prepare to deal with the aftermath.
And most of us have no idea.
343 firefighters rushed toward disaster and died, and we're forgetting.
It may never be known how many firefighters will ultimately die from 9/11. From the smoke, from the stress, from the gunk they breathed in. Two more died just recently, when a high rise damaged on 9/11 caught fire and burned. They should be added to the list. They all should. Maybe it's in the 500's, or the 600's. maybe, fifty years from now, when you add in cops and medics, there will be a thousand emergency responder deaths from just that one day.
And we're forgetting.
Just as we forget that a group of people had been trying to kill us for years before 9/11, now we refuse to acknowledge that the war goes on. I think the problem is that we haven't been called on to make sacrifices. With the exception of those serving in the military and their families, the only direct effect any of us see from 9/11 is higher gas prices, and as long as we continue getting oil from evil despots that's likely to happen, anyway.
After 9/11, we were all encouraged to go about our normal lives, to not give in to fear. It made sense: By definition terrorists want us to live in fear, and what better way to fight that than to shake our fists and live our lives? Besides, targeting the World Trade Center was more than symbolic; it was an attempt to send the world's economy into a downward spiral.
Now I'm worried that we took our defiance too far. We became enamored with the idea of continuing our lives, uninterrupted. We forgot how very much the world suddenly changed, on that brilliant, bright day when columns of smoke speared into the blue sky like blood streaming from a wound.
They came for us once, they'll do it again. They want nothing less than the utter destruction of every democratically elected nation in the world, to be replaced by their version of Muslim fundamentalism. Since they believe anyone who doesn't bow to their way deserves death, the overpopulation problem will be a thing of the past; but it puts a kink into the lives of people who only want to be left alone.
That includes all those emergency responders, who might be next in the crosshairs.
The only way they'll stop is if we find a way to make their attacks not worth it to them, and since they're convinced killing us is the best way to get into Heaven, I'm not sure how to do that without killing them first. Once they've been indoctrinated into terrorist schools and training camps, they're not likely to see a better way without force. All the hoping and rose colored glasses in the world aren't going to change that.
So the war goes on, and if we want to survive we have to fight it.
What we need in America is more sacrifice, World War II style. We were strong then because we were all in it together, even when we didn't agree with the specific plans and policies of our leadership. Maybe high gas prices are good. Maybe we need to practice 1940's style rationing, victory gardens, and recycling. Maybe we'll have to do the 21st Century equivalent of hoarding sugar.
Today's conflict isn't the same as in World War II, of course, so I'm speaking metaphorically, but the need remains: to be connected, to keep in our minds the men and women working hard, fighting, bleeding, and sometimes dying for a freedom we take for granted. Give them what they need to fight, even if it's no more than our full support and the knowledge that they're out there, keeping the enemy from coming here. Meanwhile, the emergency responders within our borders need all our support in preparing for that next attack.
If our support fades, we lose -- simple as that. This isn't about Iraq; it won't be a matter of leaving millions of people in a foreign country in the hands of some murderous fanatics. If we lose, the fanatics are coming here. If we lose, we lose everything.
That means another attack, the next of many. That means another number on the board, below the 343. What will it be next time? 574? 191? Maybe we'll have a series of single digits, filling the board over time.
If we let up, if we relax our guard, we've disrespected the lives and the sacrifices of the first 343. That's just unacceptable.