Strong As The Gusting Wind

The wind was strong, strong as a riptide, so that it pushed and pulled, a powerful capricious current. In the pit where the buildings had stood it whipped up the dust, so that from above the area appeared to be wreathed in smoke, as it had been for so many weeks after the buildings fell.

Some of the people gathered the dust in boxes or bags, and some tilted back their heads as if to receive it, the wind blowing the women's hair over their faces like veils.

They stood in a circle, holding photographs and flowers. They had become talismanic over the last year, sitting amid the ruins of their lives, proffering their stories. They are what's left of the lost.

Where do leaders come from? Boardrooms, backrooms, Wall Street, Main Street, the school board, the zoning board, the bank board, the board of directors? America hasn't done so well by the modern political Stations of the Cross, the polling data, the PACs, the political parties. Sometimes those who emerge seem to flagrantly represent the lowest common denominator, turning buzzwords over like stones in a pile, looking for the flat ones that will not slip or move. Whither passion, rage, disgust? Like the children of alcoholics, many elected officials seem to fear offending anyone.

The people standing amid the swirling dust in the pit on Sept. 11, 2002, were not like that. Over the last year, by telling their stories, by venting their anger, by wearing their losses, by knowing their rights, they have quietly become leaders in this country. And if they chose, as a group or as individuals, they have the moral authority to become a powerful force in the future.

"We're not leaders as long as you call us victims," said one mother whose daughter was murdered in the World Trade Center, speaking at a town meeting NBC held the afternoon of the anniversary. "We're not victims. We're experts."

Yes, accidental experts. Men and women who never thought they'd do an interview or give a speech or sit on a governmental advisory committee now have done all that and more. One son can speak knowledgeably of the deficiencies in the fire department communications radios, concerned that his father might not have died if he had been able to hear what was going on. One widow of a former F-14 pilot can speak eloquently of aviation safety shortcomings, angry that the hijackers made it past security screenings onto her husband's flight. Many of them can speak passionately of the failures of bureaucracies, of the doublespeak and loopholes that riddle plans to compensate the families of those who died.

And they know a lot, some of them, about American intelligence gathering and Osama bin Laden and the possibility of war in Iraq. Their mourning has taken the shape of a continuing education. In the process, some have discovered that the so-called experts are no more, and sometimes substantially less, capable than they are.

Loss changes people, even under more ordinary circumstances, and one of the things it does is to strip away a certain veneer, designed to minimize discomfort for others. That's why people are often uneasy around the bereaved, and why they want them to get over it. It's simpler to go back to the days when the answer to "How are you?" was "Fine."

Because the murders of their children and spouses and friends and siblings were so unimaginably savage, and because they have been obliged to wear their grief on a public stage, the veneer is gone from many of these people. What you see is what you get. Their motivation, in pushing for a memorial that includes the entire Trade Center site, in demanding better high-rise evacuation plans, in questioning the efficacy of American intelligence, is pure and simple.

After her husband was murdered by a lunatic on his commuter train in 1993, a nurse named Carolyn McCarthy decided to run for Congress on New York's Long Island. Her opponents suggested kindly that her heart was in the right place, but that a single issue was not enough to qualify someone for political office. When McCarthy won, I suspect that it was not simply because of sympathy or that single issue. Voters understood that when she went to the mat on gun control, it was not going to be because a pollster told her that gun control was where the votes were. She really believed.

Sad but true, that the political leadership of this country appears to include precious few who really believe. There is something so powerful about the white-hot glow of real conviction.

Perhaps some of those people standing in that windswept circle the morning of Sept. 11, 2002, have enough to do just getting out of bed each morning, sending fatherless kids off to school, going to work with the image of a lost child floating just out of reach. But if they can shoulder something more, they could help lead America in all kinds of ways in the years to come. Naysayers might whisper that they are trading on tragedy. They would actually be filling a vacuum in power in this country, a yearning for authenticity in the vox populi.