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Washington Diarist

Quiet Time

On Wednesday morning, the train was silent. Grim, tight-lipped, and still. No one looked me in the eye and nodded; thus instructed, I also did not look or nod. In the tunnel underneath the Pentagon, the smell of smoke filled the car, but no one stirred or sighed. Out of the tunnel, the smoking building came into view. A few sobs escaped, and then we returned underground and were silent again. Silent because if we had spoken we would have wailed.

In many ways, we americans have done well. We have rebounded, and with vigor. The president, who at first seemed choked by his own words, is finding his furied voice. Blood and food and clothing donations overwhelm collection centers; a spirit of volunteerism long mourned in this country seems to have returned. Rows of New Yorkers cheer rescue trucks as they drive down the West Side Highway. Even at the site where the twin towers once stood, exhausted workers listening to the president broke into chants of "USA!" And as the president requested, "the good people of America" have returned "to their shops, their fields, American factories." As a nation, we are rebuilding together. But in our efforts, we have stashed our heartbreak in a desk drawer. If we have grieved, it has been divided, or alone.

The rest of the world knows better. The Israelis, experienced in such matters, were the first: They declared a day of mourning at the same moment they declared a security lockdown. Because they know that national sorrow is not secondary to national security. In a country whose people are divided, and whose battle against enemies is never-ending, they understand the importance of unity in sorrow. Every year, to remember the Holocaust, Israel stops for two minutes. There are similar national pauses to remember the war dead, or the victims of terrorist attacks. It is a purposeful silence. For a moment, there is only grief, and it is as inescapable as the siren that expresses it. Yes, there are many other personal moments of sobbing, moments it is not meant to replace. But for that minute, the grief is national.

By thursday, the rest of the civilized world was mourning, too. In Germany, millions observed five minutes of silence; public transportation stopped, radio and TV broadcasts were silent, and, the Agence France-Press reported, "people rose to their feet or stopped in their tracks and bowed their heads." At Buckingham Palace, the American national anthem was played in tribute--a stunning first. In Canada on Friday, up to 80,000 people stood for three minutes of silence in front of Parliament, and thousands lined up to sign official books of condolence set up on Parliament Hill. And at noon on Friday, the better part of Europe was quiet for three minutes, as all activity in the European Union ceased.

The lag, states-side, was long. we had been watching the devastation individually and in groups for more than 48 hours, undone by final phone calls, lost rescue workers, scraps of office paper, the differently jagged skyline. The president's early fighting words, dutifully recited, had little effect. It wasn't until Thursday that he announced that Friday would be our national day, a day of prayer and remembrance. Through his press secretary, he urged Americans to take their Friday lunch hour to "attend prayer services at churches, synagogues, mosques, other places of their choosing to pray for our nation, to pray for the families of those who were victimized by this act of terrorism." The idea, though well meant, was wrong. Praying and grieving are different. And taking time at lunch to attend a service of one's choosing is altogether different from a national, secular ritual of shared sorrow. With this choice, the president decentralized our grief, a distinctly Republican solution, and sent it back to local programs of faith. He told us, in effect, that he could lead military action and inspire rescue teams; but for words to ease our national depression, we would have to see our rabbi.

I don't believe we wanted to go to church. Or rather, not only to church. Everywhere, there were spontaneous signs of community sorrow. A woman at Roll Call newspaper sent out an e-mail inviting people to a Friday candlelight vigil on the Mall, and thousands showed up. An NYU student taped up two pieces of butcher paper in New York's Union Square, and passersby began spontaneously to write. "Within 10 minutes, 50 people were there," the student told The Washington Post. "People needed a medium to express how they were feeling." Flags, vigils, singing--local expressions all. Yet as a nation, we had nothing but the mesmerizing TV. Which is where, on Friday, we got to watch our long-awaited national ritual of grief.

The service was multicultural but flawed. The Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, acting Episcopal bishop of Washington, invited "all people of faith ... to say to this nation, and the world, that love is stronger than hate." (Dixon, though, had found herself at the center of the culture wars this summer when she demanded the ouster of one of her own rectors for criticizing the denomination's ordination of women and homosexuals and its blessing of same-sex unions.) As she spoke, I had no prayers of any sort. Prayers of hope--for what? Prayers of need? Of thanks? They seemed beside the point. But it was the service, and not just my spiritual response, that was empty. Conducted in High-Church style, it did not speak to the bone-shaking terror we had just witnessed and felt, nor to the despair we were fighting. Experienced by most of us only on a pixilated screen, it became only a gesture of consolation. Worse, it was only a gesture toward American pluralism. The symbols were manifest: a large, shining silver cross; an imam beginning his prayers in Arabic; a rabbi. Mistaken icons of inclusiveness that remind us of our difference. And of all who were not included--Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists among them. And why slice by religion, then, and not by gender, or sexual orientation, or genetic identity? There is no group of symbols, now, that can unite us but a national one. We've recognized this multicultural effect all along, of course, but, at least then, difference was the point. Now it is not.

By friday, anyway, the disappointing service was of little matter; life had begun to return. The trains were no longer silent. A man talked with a colleague about adjusting his Tuesday time sheet. A woman, chatting about her favorite restaurant, wore, without irony, a black baseball cap with words written across the back: "Expect the unexpected." But we had not made the accommodations, which every religion makes, for a time of collective heartbreak before we hear the sights and sounds of the world again. That moment shows respect for the dead and compassion for the living. It gives permission to loosen, for a short while, the ties that bind us to life. This time, we have missed that moment. Many people who witnessed the towers fall reported on the extraordinary silence as it crumbled. "Everyone waited for a thunderous crash ..." our own David Grann reported from New York last week, "but there was not a sound." Such a collapse deserved a thunder. And such a loss deserves--at least--a collective, minute-long, wail.