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America's Longest Day 

The first anniversary of Sept. 11, America's longest day, is finally here.

Long, because our media-driven culture demands that we analyze, re-construct, de-construct, review, revisit and otherwise measure in every way a horrific event.

Long, because the United States needed to retaliate for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a hijacked passenger jetliner that crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

Long, because one day has made us a terribly different country and a different people.

And long, we hope, because as the nation comes to grips with ongoing threats to its cherished freedoms, Americans will rededicate themselves to the values and virtues that have enabled us to endure as a people for more than two centuries.

Just as television could not capture the magnitude of the destruction of the Twin Towers, New Orleans' two grimmest indicators of devastation -- murders and hurricanes -- pale by comparison. In a single day, New York City lost as many people to mass murder -- 2,800 citizens -- as New Orleans has lost to homicide over almost 10 years, according to NOPD and Orleans Parish Coroner's Office records. The nation's insurance industry has estimated $50 billion in property, liability, life and workers compensation claims, according to a Sept. 1 story in The New York Times. The previous record was $15.5 billion, set by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Such statistics are staggering, yet insufficient to express the enormity of the tragedy. As Sept. 11, 2002, approaches, we should measure how the past year has changed us -- and how we must continue to change ourselves.

In New Orleans, we often comment about our insular culture. We are absorbed by our city's many pleasures, our food and our music. We also are understandably preoccupied with our city's many problems, including crime, corruption, illiteracy and poverty. For many, the phrase "international" doesn't grab us unless it describes an exotic dish we haven't tried or a type of music we have not heard.

But Sept. 11 has made it painfully clear how vulnerable our tourist-based economy can be to the ripple effects of international terrorism. We likewise are reminded of the real threat terrorism poses to our port, airport and petro-chemical industry, which straddles the Mississippi River along one of the three most densely industrial corridors in the nation.

Now, each of us must become informed and educated about the actions of our own government, about international cultures and conflicts, and about the United States' place in the world. We need to understand better how our support of corrupt and repressive regimes can foment anger and support for terrorists who would strike against us. We see xenophobia as both foolish and dangerous. Educating ourselves is not a sign of national weakness, but of strength.

At home and abroad, we must continue to scrutinize our own responses to fear and not play into the hands of terrorists by striking out blindly at innocent people. Our constitutional rights require us all to respect everyone regardless of race, gender, color, creed or religion. Those rights are our nation's lifeblood.

Those rights are being challenged on many fronts at once. To meet those challenges, we must demand that our government's authorities -- federal, state and local -- properly account for and treat all immigrants who are detained during the "war on terrorism." By protecting those detainees, we affirm our freedoms. We show the world that ours is a democracy that neither terrorists nor their state sponsors could ever defeat or replace.

As in other times in our nation's history, we must be resourceful. In Louisiana, our seasonal preparations for floods and hurricanes have helped us learn how to prepare for an emergency. Our state emergency officials provide "homeland security" tips for citizens on the Web (www.loep.la.state.us).

Exercising healthy caution, we also support proposals by environmentalists to move mass supplies of dangerous chemicals -- a potential target of terrorists -- away from populated areas. Increased vigilance of our highways and waterways should help prevent environmental terrorism, both foreign and domestic.

As we contemplate the considerable challenges ahead of us, we also pause to reflect on the day and honor those lost and bereaved. This Sept. 11, both locally and across the country, we will cope with our grief and fear -- and cement our resilience -- in ceremonies, memorials and observances.

One way Gambit Weekly is commemorating the day is by participating in the "United We Build" citywide cleanup effort on Sept. 11. Launched by 89.9 WWNO-FM, the campaign provides more than a much-needed excuse to make our parks, playgrounds and neighborhoods cleaner and safer. (For more information, see www.wwno.org.) Like a salute or a hand placed across the heart, it is a symbolic gesture that unites us with New Yorkers. It's also a chance to improve our community -- and infuse it with hope and optimism, those most American of virtues -- as we continue to grapple with the changing realities of the world around us.

In many ways, America's longest day is not yet over.

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