ON SUNDAY’S anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the ringing of the telephone interrupts a tender reverential moment. I am watching the National Football League offer patriotic pre-game tribute to the fallen of Sept. 11, 2001. It’s always stirring to see such gentleness displayed for 30 seconds by the NFL before its young gladiators throw forearms into each other’s windpipes. But now comes the phone call.
"You should come down here," the voice says. It’s my wife.
"I’m watching a tribute to the fallen," I explain. I do not mention its attachment to a football contest.
"I think you should come down here," my wife says again.
She and a cousin have driven over to the Johns Hopkins University, where the American Friends Service Committee marks the aftermath of Sept. 11 in its own way. At Hopkins, slightly muffled behind my wife’s voice, I can hear someone at a microphone intoning names. They are the names of the fallen – not of the terrorist invasion, but of the fighting in Iraq, which is the place where Americans were sent to fight and die in alleged response to the awful Sept. 11 attack that was launched – from Afghanistan.
By the time I get to Hopkins, to a grassy patch of campus just off Charles Street and 33rd, the reciting of the names is still going on. It is 3:20 in the afternoon. The recitation has been going on for more than a hour. It continues at a steady pace, each name punctuated by the somber gong of a bell.
The grassy area has been turned into a kind of spiritual graveyard, and a few hundred people mill about. Not thousands, like a football crowd where we express great tenderness for 30 seconds before young men subdivide each other’s kneecaps. But hundreds.
There are combat boots on the grass, lined up like tombstones, each pair symbolizing U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. They are arranged by state and tagged with the soldier’s name, age, rank and home state. But this is only part of it. In several different areas, there are more shoes. These are civilians’. A sign reads: "These shoes represent a fraction of the estimated 100,000 Iraqis who have died from this war."
On one pair of shoes, a tag says, "First niece of Rabah Hassan. Age. 2." On another: "15th family member of Malik al-Kharbit family. Age unknown." On a pair of little sneakers: "Tabarek Talab. 4 months." In another spot, there are a dozen pairs of shoes from the same family.
And, row after row after row, there are the American boots. In front of one pair, a man kneels on the grass with his arms around his little boy. Near another, a woman stands with her hands folded in prayer. A couple hold hands, looking slightly awe-struck. And still the roll call of the dead goes on.
I bump into John Dornheim, the chaplain at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
"This is a holy place," he says. "The spirits of these people are with us, and we need to end this thing. If Iraq needs military support, it should be a U.N. force, not us. This is not about lack of support for our troops, it’s about a government policy that put us in Iraq, and told us we were there to defend the U.S. And knew that a segment of the population would go along with that."
Dornheim says he wants people to be moved – "to do something, to put pressure on congressmen." No, not on George W. Bush. The president seems oblivious to such pressure, as does the vice president. In their own youth, the two of them worked overtime avoiding overseas combat, but have no problem sending other young people off to fight, and no problem lying repeatedly to do it.
The results are spread across this lawn. In the Maryland section, the first boots are a woman’s: Army Spc. Toccara R. Green, 23. Then, Army Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger, 20. Army Spc. Jason C. Ford, 21. Marine Lance Cpl. Michael L. Starr Jr., 21. And on and on.
"There’s been a lot of tears shed," says Marq Anderson of the American Friends Service Committee. He is national tour manager of this Eyes Wide Open exhibit, which has traveled the country for the past 16 months.
"We got some protests at first," he says. "But that just doesn’t happen anymore."
He gestures to a nearby sign, listing the number of American dead: 1,896. "About an hour ago," he says, "it went up by one. We don’t have any details yet."
He walks to a nearby pair of boots: Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Arizona. She has been honored as the first Native American woman ever killed in combat. In the Michigan area, the name says Army Pfc. Richard Rosas, 21. Next to his boots is a handwritten message: "Where these boots may travel, my broken heart will follow. God bless America. Rick’s Mom."
In those words are the nation’s inner conflict: We love our country, but sometimes grieve over the violence done in America’s name and the lies that attempt to excuse it.
But we feel helpless to stop it, and find that a numbness sets in. On the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, we let the NFL do our secondhand grieving for us, and then we rejoice in athletic mayhem. Or we wander among empty combat boots on a grassy college lawn, feeling helpless and overwhelmed and infuriated, and listen as the names of some of the dead are recited.
"When did they start reading out the names?" I ask Chaplain Dornheim.
"Two o’clock," he says.
I leave a little past 4:30. They are still reading out names.