On Christina Taylor Green’s first birthday, I spent the day on Vesey Street on the north side of St. Paul’s Chapel. In addition to being Christina’s birthday, it was the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and I was volunteering with the American Red Cross to check in family members attending the memorial service at Ground Zero, assigned to the check-in area
St. Paul’s is a lovely old church a few blocks from Trinity Church, with which it is affiliated, and almost directly across Church Street from the former site of the World Trade Center. After the September 11 attacks it became a respite center, both spiritual and physical, for recovery workers. They stomped into the chapel in their muddy work boots to rest, eat and sometimes to sleep on the pews. After the clean-up of the WTC site was completed, St. Paul’s was cleaned and became the home of a memorial to the rescue and recovery work. Despite the cleaning, a few scuffs remain from those muddy boots, and they are among the Chapel’s most sacred items.
On the wrought iron fence that surrounds St. Paul’s workers and visitors hung tributes to those who died on September 11 and those who worked at the site. On that long anniversary day I found myself going again and again to one t-shirt on the fence. It read: “The bravest thing a firefighter ever does is take the oath. After that it’s all in the line of duty.”
Those words reminded me that the firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers were the only people who went to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, with an awareness of risk. The people who worked in the offices of the WTC didn’t expect to be faced with life-threatening catastrophe that day; they didn’t know that 2,752 of them would not make it out of the towers alive.
This is a long way of saying that most of the people who went shopping at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, on the morning of January 8 were similarly unaware that they were risking their lives. Only a few had jobs that put them at slightly greater risk than most of us face.
One of the early news reports I heard said that among the dead was “an innocent nine-year-old child.” I couldn’t help but agree that Christina Taylor Green was an innocent victim of a terrible crime; yet I believe that the adults who were killed and injured are equally innocent. They did nothing to deserve such horrible consequences to a shopping trip on a warm Saturday afternoon. They may not be quite so innocent as a nine-year-old gir, but surely they did nothing to deserve this?
Representative Gabrielle Giffords had received threats at her office. I suppose most elected officials get the occasional crack-pot letter or e-mail along with the more usual requests for help and messages favoring or opposing some legislative bill. A few of the threats Rep. Giffords received were serious enough to discuss with law enforcement; yet she ran for re-election. Perhaps compared to her husband’s career as an astronaut a few crack-pot letters or phone calls to her Congressional office didn’t seem all that dangerous.
Also at the grocery store that day were Judge John M. Roll, who had received threats at his office, and Gabe Zimmerman, Rep. Giffords’ aid, who must have been aware of the threats made to Giffords. No-one else attending the Congress on Your Corner event or shopping nearby afterward would have had any reason to think of risk. Even these government workers, aware of the occasional threatening message, would not have had reason to think that they were at any significant risk that day.
Thankfully most elected officials in the United States are at very little risk in their work. It’s quite different in Afghanistan, Iraq or other nations in the Middle East, Africa, and underdeveloped countries. Assassination attempts happen there far more frequently and are often successful in their murderous aims. There, too, innocent by-standers young and old are often victims. There, too, the officials who are the targets of violence, whatever their faults, deserve better than to be killed for the roles they play in government.
Christina Green had gone to the Congress on Your Corner event with a neighbor because she had just been elected to her school’s student council. Here she had an opportunity to see a Congresswoman in person, to learn a little about government and perhaps be inspired.
What was I doing when I was nine years old? I had no interest in student government; I’ve never been much for politics, besides trying to stay abreast of things enough that when I vote on Election Day (and I’ve rarely missed an election) I am able to cast my vote with some knowledge of the issues. No, I was interested in baseball and moon landings. The year I was nine, men walked on the moon for the first time, and a few months later the New York Mets won their first World Series. It is such a strange coincidence, then, that Representative Giffords’ husband is an astronaut, and Christina Green’s grandfather once managed the Mets. Life can be odd that way, connecting a little girl in Tucson to the little girl I was many years ago by the fragile threads of coincidence. In a nation of 300 million people, a world of over six billion, we are much close to one another than we think.
Which brings me back to where I began: on Christina’s first birthday, I was a volunteer at the anniversary memorial at Ground Zero. On my first birthday, 50 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. He didn’t finish his term of office, but died by an assassin’s bullet. Too bad so little has changed in half a century. But let us be grateful for the courage of our elected officials and the innocence of nine-year-old girls.