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Keeping Focus During Loss

The wife of a victim of the attacks on the World Trade Center attends a candlelight vigil in New York City in 2002.
Roberto Schmidt
AFP/Getty Images
The wife of a victim of the attacks on the World Trade Center attends a candlelight vigil in New York City in 2002.

On Friday, I talked to the pastor of a church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was trying to figure out what to say on Sunday to comfort and encourage people in his community who had lost people they love and the homes they had built because of those devastating tornadoes that ripped through the American South last week.

On Saturday, I put on a pretty dress and went to a fancy dinner where I listened to the president try to put to rest the ridiculous and irrelevant suggestion that he was not born in this country, and thus not eligible to serve in the job he has already held for two years now. The charge was being pressed by a rich luxury property developer and reality show star whose mode of argument — other than attacking people's heritage — is to criticize women for not being attractive enough to him.

Then came Sunday, when we learned that the man who had masterminded the terrorist attacks on our country almost a decade ago was now dead — his body in the hands of the government, the people he tried to destroy.

It was hard to know how to feel, hard to know how to react. The president, in his remarks to the nation late last night, asked the country to remember the sense of unity and gratitude that we found in the midst of our grief almost a decade ago.

I remember that day.

I was in New York, just a few miles from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell. I was about to film a television program that would quickly become irrelevant. Sometime very late that night, I remember being out near ground zero. I was standing on a box trying to figure out what to say when it was time for my television live shot.

The big searchlights were glaring as the rescue efforts went on, the awful burned smell in the air, when this young black man — maybe in his late teens, maybe in his early 20s — approached me. He was wearing baggy jeans, drooping low, and an oversized sweatshirt pulled over his head. He said — and I swear this is true — "I just want to say that I deplore this dastardly act and I stand with all of my fellow Americans at this time."

Can I just tell you? I hope the president is right; I fear he is not. Why do we need a crisis and an enemy to remind us not to get stuck on stupid?

In fact, some of the political discourse of recent weeks reminds me of the days just before Sept. 11, when many of the media were preoccupied with similarly inconsequential noise that had nothing to do with the lives of most people. And we all knew it. The preoccupation was only interrupted by the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on that terrible day.

So again, we have been preoccupied with noise about the president's birth certificate and grades and grade-point average, while our fiscal condition deteriorates, many parts of the world are in chaos and our men and women in uniform continue to die. That doesn't even account for the unforeseeable suffering we've experienced recently, like those devastating tornadoes.

In the days and weeks ahead, I am sure that through good reporting and intelligence, we will learn a great deal about where bin Laden has been, what other havoc he had planned and, perhaps, what made it so hard to catch him. But what intelligence briefing can we read to find out why we can't seem to keep sight of the greatness of this country — in the absence of grief and loss — or at least stop wasting our time on nonsense?

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.