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It’s the same old story

I don’t know why I kept the papers. It wasn’t exactly a day to shout, “Stop the presses!” It was just another ordinary Monday: Sept. 10, 2001. Looking back, some of the stories seem almost comical in their lack of any frame of reference to today’s news. A piece on Gary Condit — the California congressman linked to a missing intern — and his legal and political strategy. The Jets were beaten by the Colts. Barry Bonds hit three homers in a single game.

AT THE U.S. Open, Venus Williams beat her sister Serena to win the title. There was a brief story out of Afghanistan about two warlords being blown up by a suicide bomber.

In the letters to the editor of The New York Times, a New Jersey man wrote that “most, if not all, members of the American Muslim Alliance are enraged at the ruthless and inexorable actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Huh? What was the Taliban? Who paid any attention? It was Sept. 10, 2001. It was 24 hours before we began to bury our innocence.

There were headlines about a possible recession, a weak President, the New York mayoral primary, the resignation of a federal judge in New Jersey, a plea bargain with a Brooklyn killer, an opera singer who offered a $1,000 reward for a misplaced garment bag containing a few dresses. There were small fires. A few anonymous murder victims.

It was another country. A different city. It was Sept. 10. Mohamed Atta was calmly plotting a big kill planned by evil fanatics who took their lead from our leniency.

In Rockaway, parents were walking kids to school. In the Bronx, men and women boarded buses and trains and headed to work. In Connecticut and New Jersey, husbands kissed wives goodbye and commuted to a city that would be forever altered within 24 hours. Women made breakfast for their families and went to doomed offices.

What everyone took for granted changed in the snap of a finger when those planes and all those people were destroyed by the hatred of those who despise us for who we are, what we have and what we represent: freedom.

Last week, much of the nation paused to reflect on those insane acts of mass murder that stunned America, triggered two wars and inserted a lingering fear into the country. It was done in good taste and the sounds of children’s voices, filling the air, were sad but soothing.

I suppose there were at least as many memories as there were participants in the vigils held around the nation. After all, there are so many connections between the victims and all of us lucky enough to be alive.

I could not help thinking of those terrified souls trapped above the blistering heat. I see them still, in photographs as well as my mind’s eye: clinging to steel, glass and concrete, exposed to wind and smoke billowing from below, looking left, right and skyward, helpless before a horrifying number jumped into eternity. That’s the snapshot I cannot erase.

Two years later, I am struck by the irrelevance of much that appeared in the papers Sept. 10, 2001. But then, picking up the papers 24 months later, a lot of the stories are pretty much the same. Only the names have changed.

It makes you wonder about people — especially the politicians. Nearly everything out of their mouths seems to have a partisan edge. Are they so self-absorbed that they have no memory of how nobly so many behaved in the cyclone of dust, debris and death? Nobody said, “Save the Republicans on the 64th floor before you get the Democrats on 62.”

Two years ago, as the fires burned, New York was too busy dealing with pain and loss to be partisan about anything other than helping the living and finding the dead and missing. People joined together like an alloy of metals, able to absorb the worst without crumbling.

So what has happened to honor that commitment to duty displayed in the shadow of such monstrous danger? Not much, not enough.

The government lied about the air quality around lower Manhattan. It lied about how New York would be reimbursed for all it lost in equipment and personnel. And it either lied or was totally misled by ideologues who figured it was a good idea to kick Saddam Hussein out of Iraq for the simple reason that we could.

Today, we’re opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in Brooklyn. We pause to remember those who died in the fireballs of Sept. 11 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, yet barely notice the young soldiers getting killed in firefights in Mosul, Tikrit and Basra.

It makes you wonder how many of these politicians giving lip service to the moment do it simply out of ambition or habit. Don’t they realize their words sound as empty as their gestures toward solving problems or addressing the danger that still threatens America? Or have they, too, become as meaningless as yesterday’s headlines?

Mike Barnicle’s column is reprinted with permission of the New York Daily News.