Kirk Landers, Editor Emeritus

Are We Falling Short of Their Example?

By Kirk Landers

I sat down to write this column on the weekend of 9/11, and like most of us Americans, all I could think about was where I was when, and what it all meant.[email protected]

Our Better Roads crew was in suburban Philadelphia that morning, getting ready to leave for another day at the 2001 American Public Works Association Show. As I waited near the car for the others, someone yelled down to the parking lot from the second floor of the motel that an airplane had just flown into the World Trade Center. Soon others popped out of their rooms to exchange expressions of amazement.

One of our guys opened his door and called us in. As we watched film and commentary on the first incident, the second one occurred. As television journalists sifted through the confusion to find the facts of what we’d seen, rumors started flying in the motel about flights being canceled, bridges being closed, the world stopping.

We knew there would be no show that day, and probably no flights. We rented a car and headed west, hoping the bridge rumors were false.

They were, but an impression had already been made in my mind. An entire lifetime of taking bridges for granted was changed on that day. We all realized that a 1,200-mile trip could have been a 2,000-mile trip or no trip at all without the bridges we all take for granted.

The endless drive to Chicago was devoid of the usual banter between us. Radio coverage of the event became monotonously circular, the handful of facts about the attack constantly recited in cycles separated by filler. It was a passing marked by long periods of boredom and brief fits of rage.

At one fuel stop, a young man tending to his pickup offered the loud opinion that New York deserved what it got. Lest we forget, America was then, as now, a bitterly divided place, at war with itself over issues mostly invented by politicians to raise money and get elected.

In the days to follow, that yokel’s sentiments would be echoed by street people in the Middle East, who told television reporters that they didn’t approve of the act, but America had it coming.

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That big-mouth American at the gas station almost certainly awoke the next day a chest-thumping super-patriot, driving about with American flags flying from his vehicle, angrily denouncing the terrorists, raging over the sentiments of Middle Eastern street people who said America had it coming. How ironic, eh?

Great acts of courage and selflessness took place at Ground Zero, and thousands of young people were inspired to volunteer for the armed forces. We have spent 10 years composing prose that celebrates our heroes and our national spirit and unity.

I join in that celebration, but as I think back on that day, and on where we are now, it’s not all flag-waving and cheers I feel. I remember feeling privileged that day, that we could drive hundreds of miles at highway speeds to get home on the eve of a national catastrophe. I think of Ike Eisenhower, the political architect of our Interstate system, and the weeks it took him to move coast to coast before the Interstates.

His highway system, our investment in bridges, our commitment to connectivity all served to reduce the effects of a catastrophic event in America.

In the decade since the terrorist attacks, we are still a country at war with itself. We are a country that wants to pay the $4-trillion debt for the anti-terrorist wars with a tax cut. And we are a country that is letting its magnificent system of roads and bridges erode for lack of investment.

Forgive me, but while I gratefully honor the heroism and sacrifice of that day, part of me feels a great sadness that the rest of us have fallen so short of their example in the decade since.

In their memory, let us raise a cup to the decade ahead. Let us resolve to do more, be better, and accomplish great things together.