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Redoubling our Efforts Post-Sept. 11

February 18, 2002

N.J. Lawyer

Robert E. Nies is a member of Wolff & Samson.

Having experienced nothing like it in my lifetime, the year 2001 invites reflection, contemplation and closure - while at once defying sense, understanding and closure. As the fog of year's end has only begun to lift, my sense is-that, as a nation of individuals, we have grown too quiet for our own well-being.

We have relinquished to the media the most pressing and personal task of defining for us our feelings of anger, frustration, fear, grief and even our hopes for the future. Not to panic: We are not about to embark together upon a journey to get in touch with our inner selves. Just a few thoughts, because it seems necessary and perhaps even helpful.

Sept. 11, 2001 would have been a defining day of any year but, for those of us too young to have experienced or remembered the few remotely comparable events in our country's history, it has come to define each of our lives. How the news of the day unfolded was almost as surreal as the events themselves. One horrific happening was eclipsed by yet another, and the morning culminated with the inflicting of the Pentagon's deadly wound and the almost simultaneous collapse of twin skyscrapers that would forever alter an incomparable New York skyline.

Who could have imagined that the final deadly assault - the apparently intentional crashing of a passenger plane near Pittsburgh - would come to be seen as the silver lining in these dark and murderous clouds. Many of the passengers of that plane somehow were able to muster the strength and courage to act heroically in the face of certain death. Thousands of vibrant lives were erased in several sharp flashes.

No work was done that day nor was any capable of being done; my blank timesheet retained as a simple reminder. The collective paralysis became a harbinger of coming months, when all work would seem trivial and our attention would be drawn to more pressing matters like renewed commitments to family and friends, to the communal sharing of focused grief and newfound fears and, even, to the ubiquitous yet riveting news reports of our country's "War on Global Terrorism" and its apparent domestic sibling, the not-yet-as-deadly "Anthrax Scare."

Information was conveyed by an odd consortium, one that evoked feelings both of nostalgia and the future. It came in a mixture of fact and speculation from CNN, on the Internet, attorneys and staff huddled around portable radios awaiting news of loved ones, and the blow-by-blow descriptions conveyed by phone in near hour-long segments from my wife glued to the TV at home. These were cascading moments that had to be shared by a collective conscience, as though, if absorbed alone, there could have been no semblance of reality, no possibility of perspective, no time to breathe.

Thankfully, my family lost no one directly related to us. It also was serendipitous that my 10 a.m. appearance in the Southern District of New York courthouse at the tip of lower Manhattan was scheduled for Sept. 13, particularly as my travel plans routinely (used to) include taking the PATH to the WTC at just about the worst possible time. Of course, our good fortune quickly dissipated amidst the excruciating pain of the uncertainty that gripped others and the equally painful sense of disbelief brought by accurate information.

The town where my family resides, Basking Ridge, was hit inordinately hard: Nineteen families lost close family members, seven of whom were parishioners of our church and whose serial memorial services.,brought forth thousands of people - for each memorial service - to pay their respect and sympathy.

A close friend and client saw his company's leased premises rendered unusable from collateral damage from the WTC, as he and his employees escaped one island by ferry for another, Staten Island. They spent the balance of 2001 trying to salvage their business while seeking office space in an unprecedented Manhattan real estate market that had, in an instant, lost tens of millions of square feet in commercial space.

A friend in our town lost his son whose wife is one of several widows expecting a child in 2002. A former associate's brother, a firefighter, died working, trying to save the lives of strangers. As I recount our vicarious experiences, however, inevitably I know they must pale in comparison to those of so many others who, unbelievably, are left desperate, hopeless and in shock.

The weight of that day seems universal and, sometimes still, unyielding. It is not simply the death of loved ones, as most people can relate to personal losses. It happens that this past year my best friend of over 40 years died prematurely of a heart attack while my father, in November, died from a car accident. Without minimizing anyone's personal tragedy, including my own, it seems everyone has known or shortly will know those kinds of losses.

They are truly significant, but are somehow familiar even if unexpected and untimely. It is, however, the inappropriate coupling of Sept. 11's enormous loss of life with its unfamiliar source - the suicidal use of common jet airliners and innocent people as weapons of mass destruction, fueled principally by unmitigated hatred - that continues to gnaw at us. That particular combination lacks any corresponding life experience - such as the tragedy of a natural disaster - to serve as a compass back to normalcy or, more likely, simply out of this dark hole.

Having acknowledged that, I have a sense today that movement forward is occurring, and movement generally is good. Our leaders' response has been swift, measured and resolute. While a sense of vulnerability persists, that too is probably good, as we have reason to feel insecure. I believe, though, that everything soon will reach a new equilibrium as familiar routines of pre-Sept. 11 begin to emerge, slowly.

It's the unmitigated hatred, however, that needs our attention. While I resist the simplicity of a recently coined phrase that blames this travesty on the "evildoers," there is some truth in that notion, as good and evil have struggled for our hearts and minds since time began. If true, unfortunately, then this could simply be the 21st century's first, horrific rendering of that epic battle.

If we cannot completely eliminate hatred and evil, as history would suggest is likely, we must redouble our efforts to practice goodness in every aspect of our daily lives and in all our personal relationships. With our loved ones, nothing kind may be left unsaid each day. There may not be another opportunity for the right words or for what we could not have known would have been our last hugs.

This is not simplistic folly or Pollyanna speaking. Yes, we must root out terrorism and try to make the world safe. But, individually, we must keep goodness alive and well in our daily interactions. That is the kind of balance of power we cannot afford to lose. It is a daunting challenge, but one well within the grasp of each of us.