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September 11th, A Day for Nothing

The honor of the 9/11 blog should rightfully go to Bruce or to Brian who have spent time on the front lines, defending America in the attack’s aftermath, Bruce on the FBI’s counter-terrorism taskforce or Brian and his military service. The luck of the rotation, however, has me scheduled to blog this week. The results, therefore, may be less dramatic. I offer a quiet reflection from the middle swath of America.

In 2001, my children were toddlers. Tuesday morning was spent with the television off, the many and varied tasks of getting my wife and me ready for work at the District Attorney’s Office and the boys prepared for the day consumed our attention. If there was news, we didn’t hear it. Our mundane world of children and jobs and everyday life pushed it aside.

Betty and I were in the car, mere blocks from our office, the nine story Criminal Justice Center, when my wife’s father called to tell her that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He had little additional news, just the first glimpse of an unfolding tragedy. We were little more than parked and inside our office when the South Tower was struck.

Around the DA’s office, televisions, radios and computers soon focused on learning of news. What we heard was catastrophic and deteriorating.

At the time, I was the chief prosecutor in the 372nd Judicial District Court. We had defendants summoned and jurors and schedules prepared weeks in advance. Justice was waiting, but no one felt like working. After a time, Judge Wisch, the presiding judge of the 372nd, called the jurors into court. He explained as best he could where America stood. Then, he dismissed the panel. “Pray,” he told the jurors. “Pray for the soldiers, sailors and airmen. Pray for the first responders of New York City. Pray for your country.”

The rest of the day was hollow. I worked in the office on the day that the elected district attorney succumbed to cancer. Although sad, cancer we understood. We did what we needed to do. This we could not understand. No meaningful work was done on September 11th. Instead, we gathered in small, silent groups. Fort Worth is the corporate home to American Airlines. Everyone knew someone at American. We worried for our neighbors. We all knew someone who lived in Manhattan, we worried for our far-flung friends. Everyone knew someone serving in the military, we worried for their future.

That night, Betty and I kept the television off so as not to upset our boys. We called as we could, seeking news of our friends and neighbors. We gathered at a hastily arranged church service to add corporate prayer to the many individual entreaties for the dead and injured. In the days that followed we donated blood and contributed to the Red Cross. We bought a share of American Airlines stock.  We read and talked about how to explain to a four-year old boy, “why did those men crash the planes into that building?”

Church services and donated money and pints of blood, we stood in America’s heartland and tried in our ways to recompense for the broken planes, broken buildings, broken bodies, and broken hearts.

My clearest memory, however, of a fitting memorial to 9/11 occurred several weeks later. By then, here in the heartland, life had largely resumed, the recovery an evening news topic. We were back in the 372nd, prosecuting criminal cases and preparing to try a sexual assault case. The defendant up in the dock, coincidentally that week, was named Mohammed Koran. Had we culled through our case lists, we might never have found a name more likely to push Islam-o-phobic buttons. His attorney, Matt King, approached the bench and asked that a continuance be granted. He had no reason which he could articulate other than the interest of justice.

Justice, however, has multiple sides. Sexual assault victims need to get past this trial moment to resume their lives. The victim had done nothing to provoke any prejudice against the defendant. She deserved the trial which she too had waited for. We should press the court to go forward.

In the end, the prosecution stood mute and allowed Judge Wisch to decide. He considered the “t’ain’t fair” argument of the defense. (T’ain’t is the local, double apostrophe local word for “that is not”). In the end, he sided with the Defense. In the end, Judge Wisch was right.

We had broken planes, broken buildings, broken bodies and broken hearts. What the case reminded me, however, was that our institutions, our foundational principles remained intact, our system of due process for all stood intact. We did not surrender to xenophobia, or scape goats or misplaced revenge. To my mind, we presented America at its best, by doing nothing.

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