Globe Syndicate

for release November 30, 2001

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

Learning from the Past

On the last Sunday in October, survivors, families and friends took part in a memorial service for lost loved ones at the site of the World Trace Center attacks. They said they wanted a chance to gather at "ground zero;" the speakers were only religious leaders, no political ones. Even though there had been and would be other memorial services, they said they wanted to, in this way, be near their loved ones at the site where they were lost.

There is something about a place -- about being there -- trying to get as close as possible to where loved ones last walked, worked, and breathed. I think it helps people mourn, cope, and move forward with their lives. Survivors talked to each other, hugged, shared stories: "Who did you lose?" they asked each other. I suppose it is the kind of thing you really understand only if you have experienced it. Some chose not to come, saying they weren't ready.

Two other groups of survivors of atrocity certainly understand the New York survivors' feelings about place. I was intrigued and heartened recently by a story of how one group unwittingly helped the other group.

A Cheyenne peace chief, Lawrence Hart, worked for years to get land set aside as a national historical site where a terrible massacre in the 1860's had occurred. This was along the Washita River near Cheyenne, Oklahoma. He testified before the U.S. Congress. The request was turned down, due in part, he later realized, to the fact that his group had asked for too large an easement area. It was objected to by local property owners. Hart also realized they would have a better chance of success if they come up with private funds to purchase the ground.

Then, families and survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing lobbied successfully and appropriately to have the land around the bombed office building set aside for a memorial there. Lawrence Hart was one of many Oklahoma leaders and citizens who helped to read the names of those killed in the explosion at a memorial service.

"The street in front of the building had been closed. And when it came time to open it again, the families of the victims of that bombing objected to it. They did not want that street to be open again ever. They made it known that that ground was special, that to them it was sacred geography," said Hart. "That of course made an impression on me. I knew what he was talking about."

The opportunity came for Hart to petition the U.S. government again to set aside the Washita ground. "In my second testimony to Congress," Hart said, "I mentioned the fact again that the Washita site was very special ground for us, that we revered those grounds. And then I made the comparison that our feeling for those grounds were no different than the feeling of the families about the Murrah Federal Office Building site, that they're the same. And of course, Congress in that context could understand it," said Hart. The land was set aside and is now operated by the National Park Service.

The reason Lawrence Hart worked so hard to have that ground set aside was not just for this special feeling his people had for the ground -- but so the stories of his people would continue to be told and not forgotten.

Terrible acts were committed against each of these groups -- from Oklahoma to New York City. Ironically, they were all committed, in some sense, over geography. It took the U.S. government over 100 years to finally "get it," and make this small reparation. It took a committed peacemaker (a Cheyenne peacemaker is committed to peacemaking methods at all costs) years of working, mediating, and working the proper channels to achieve a small act of reconciliation.

During this season we traditionally look at stories from the first North Americans in observation of the first Thanksgiving (second Monday in October in Canada, fourth Thursday in November, U.S.) Perhaps this story from our Native American heritage can help us learn again from the past.

The complexities of the current crisis and ensuing war against terrorism boggle the mind. I don't have space, or the brain, to sort it all out here. But I've read the work of others who do a good job of trying to sort it out (for instance, <> and <>).

I do know this: now is not the time to make sweeping generalizations against groups of people, to color things in broad strokes. We must continually work to understand the roots of this crisis, to not label each other, to not be unduly swept away by blind patriotism. Like the survivors of these three atrocities, we can learn from each other-and move forward looking for lasting ways to honor the stories and memories of the thousands, here and over there, who have died too soon.

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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.

NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 800 words; end material = 105 words

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