I stood at a busy lunch counter in Little Havana as I watched the Twin Towers topple.
Gawking at an overhead TV wedged atop the well-worn appliances, it was a good thing I was speechless. When people are angry, their blood starts pumping faster, and they draw on their deepest, untranslatable feelings, which are housed forever in their native tongue. Standing as I was amid a mass of Cubanos, or the children of Cubanos, I would have had trouble conversing.
Everyone understanding one another, though, that was not a problem. Something was deathly wrong with what was happening.
Not having a TV in my apartment, which overlooked the Miami airport, I had rushed down to the sidewalk as soon as a friend had called from the West Coast, and headed to the place off NW Seventh Street where I liked to get a Cuban breakfast, with café con leche. I stayed long enough to be hit over the head with a baseball bat, figuratively speaking of course, and returned home.
The next morning began an eerie week. I had grown used to the roar of jets taking off at the crack of dawn, and so the early morning quiet we all prize now seemed out of place where I lived. Once flights resumed, I was grateful they were waking me up.
I remember writing a profanity-laced poem later that day, addressing my thoughts on Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, but fortunately that work has been lost to posterity.
Unfortunately, however, what also appears to be lost to posterity is something far more valuable. It is not something I wrote, but something that was written years before. It is not something that can be lost when a hard drive crashes or a floppy disk, which is what I was using then, becomes corrupted.
It is something similar to the words on pieces of parchment encased in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives.
There you find the originals of the United States Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There you can read words in elegant cursive writing, such as, and I quote “We the People of the United States,” and “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States,” and “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and “And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
For those who may be a little rusty on the meaning of beneficent, it is defined as “doing or producing good, performing acts of kindness and charity.” And for those unclear as to rectitude, it means “moral integrity, righteousness, the quality or state of being correct in judgment or procedure.”
Those two words, beneficent and rectitude, have not been lost, you can still peer down into the cases in the Rotunda and read them.
But where they are written on the hearts of Americans, that is where they have been obscured over the last 20 years.
I will not bore you with lectures, or scold you with sanctimony. We all know what we have lost, and we all know what we, and I believe most all of us, want to find again.
That collective, patriotic spirit of kindness and charity when it comes to our politics. That moral integrity that comes with debating openly, and honestly, while shunning personal attack and unfounded denunciations and aspersions.
As we commemorate that fateful day 20 years ago, let’s consider that in a giant sense, we are all watching the world unfold at a lunch counter, surrounded by others with whom communication can be a challenge, with whom meaning can be garbled in translation.
But we all know what we mean in our heart of hearts. Sometimes being speechless speaks closest to our beneficence and rectitude.