The second anniversary of 9/11 passed with relatively quiet solemnity, as if each of us has internalized the great national wound.

This seems appropriate somehow, for 9/11 was as much an attack on Americans as on the American government.

I had my own quiet remembrance earlier this year. During a stay in New York City, I went to the place where the Twin Towers once stood.

I didn't relish the visit but as this was my first trip to the city since 9/11, I felt a duty to go to the location I used to visit often, where I had dined at Windows on the World and looked out on a far different world than we inhabit today.

They say the symbiosis between mass and void energizes the most moving sculpture. This is true of the great emptiness that replaced the World Trade Center. Framed by neighboring skyscrapers, this vast abyss is profound.

It is inhabited space, this cavity in the sky. It is redolent of innocent souls and heroes, whose lives ended on the day in which ours, the living, would change in ways we are still discovering.

From the 67th floor of the North Tower, Ian, one of my former congressional assistants, somehow rushed to safety. On his way down, he and his co-workers ran into firemen rushing up, struggling under the weight of their equipment. Ian tried to memorize badge numbers of the firemen to thank them later. But the numbers vanished, like the firemen themselves.

A little boy behind me asks his father, "Why are all these people here, Daddy?"

The father replies, "They came to see where the buildings fell down." At his young age, the boy did not need to know more.

Unscathed, St. Paul's Chapel stands a few yards from the devastation at Ground Zero.

This place of worship offered a special ministry to victims, to exhausted emergency workers, and to families of the lost.

Today, it's a shrine. Hanging from its balconies are great hand-made, cloth banners. They contain words like, "Grace"... "Faith" ...and "We Shall Overcome."

There is no connection to Iraq here. Missing are the words, "War"... "Pre-emptive Attack"... and "Go It Alone."

Someone has entered something in the chapel's guest book. The entry reads, "Too often it is in loss that we discover the things we love, and why we love them."

The words refer to the Twin Towers and their victims, of course. But they could also apply to another casualty of 9/11 - some of our civil liberties.

Will the war on terror create conditions in which we continue to permit the government to withdraw our freedoms - because we forget how much we love them until we lose them?

Outside St. Paul's Chapel, street venders are barking behind their tables, selling cheap glass replicas of the towers. It is commercial exploitation of a great tragedy. I'm not offended by it ... not really. At least it isn't political exploitation, which is worse.

Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer, professor and political commentator. He served for 18 years in the U.S. Congress and is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. E-mail him at lesaucoin@excite.com

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