We celebrate all kinds of anniversaries in our lives: our own birth or the birth of those close to us, wedding days, the day we proposed to that person with whom we wished to share our lives, christenings, and a whole list of other great and joyous events. These benchmarks are often the great “party” in the foreseeable future that makes it possible to move from one anniversary to the next. But there are other anniversaries in our lives, benchmarks of moments we wish had never occurred. Whether as a person, a family, a community, or a societal collective, what marks the impact of these anniversaries in our lives is the immensity, scope, and degree of sadness. The passing of a loved one, a local tragedy, or a national disaster ó these are all the stuff of a day of personal or national mourning and reflection. As September 11 approaches, we as a nation are again facing a day of reflection, mourning, and renewed national resolve. The media will have a wide range of “specials” prepared for us. They will rebroadcast those images that have become so painful to see. They will have an array of experts and people with personal stories to tell of the fateful and horrible day. Some will be insightful and important broadcasts; some will be opportunist trash cashing in on national sentiment: “More stories of 9/11 coming up. But first, a word from our sponsor and how you can lose inches off your waist in just days…” In every tragedy there are concentric circles of impact; starting with those actually killed, then moving outward to their immediate family, those who were there and survived, the family and friends of that group, those who observed with a personal connection from afar, and those who watched from their homes and offices on television knowing only the tragedy but not those actually impacted. We also observe the moment and reflect from our own area of expertise. All of us wish to be engaged and involved in this moment of national reflection. Those in fire and rescue have one view: to be prepared. Architects have the mission of building better and more survivable structures. Security personal are dedicated to ensuring that the opportunity to cause so much death and chaos is denied future terrorists. But as we in human resources/staffing look at this tragedy, what mission can we accept as our own in memory of this anniversary and in memory and dedication to those who died? What is our mission to honor the dead and serve the living? It is, after all, difficult to see a real mission for the “policy and procedure hacks” in this moment in our nation’s history. Or is it? Six months ago a furor arose out of the September 11th crisis that spoke to me as one area where we have not done enough and could redouble our efforts to work to bring us all closer together as human resources/staffing professionals: true national diversity. A moment of national unity we were enjoying was marred by an incident, the root cause being our continued issues with accepting ourselves as a diverse culture with many faces but one nation. It is a shame that this moment had to occur. We all have a vivid memory of the three firefighters who found an American flag near the rubble and destruction of the World Trade Center. On their own they rigged a makeshift rope and pulley and raised the flag on the tallest piece of jagged rubble they could find. In that one moment they stirred a shocked and frightened nation. In that simple and elegant act they unified us. I wept and I do not care who knows it. Not unlike the flag raising on Iwo Jima in World War II, this simple act emblemized our national resolve and unity. I never noticed who the fire fighters were at the time ó their act was to important to personalize. They did not do it for the recognition or the publicity; they did it because it was the right thing to do. For some, that is sufficient justification. An artist was later hired to recreate the moment as a statue to stand before the headquarters building of the NYFD. His vision was a representation of the moment ó not with the actual firefighters involved, but rather with a statue that represented the diversity of all firefighters present that day. That’s when the trouble began. One side argued that it was wrong to change or misrepresent an actual moment in history in order to “placate” those not present at the actual event. Others claimed that who actually raised the flag was less of an issue than the unity that the flag-raising represented ó and that the representation of all who were affected by that dark and dreadful day should be the real focus of the statue. But of course, in the rubble of the World Trade Center lay members of all races and genders, and if the statue should reflect that fact, is three figures enough? What of the women who risked their lives that day or were killed, should they not also be represented? After about two weeks of national debate and media headlines, the project was set aside for future consideration and the underlying issue of race and gender, having once again raised its head, was quietly allowed to be put aside until the next issue arises and we run to our respective battle stations. The irony is that I can accept any argument on this topic as valid:
- The original three firemen were Caucasian and male. Shouldn’t historical monuments reflect the true moment, and not one manufactured to appease all opinions? But are we building a statue to the moment itself, or to the symbol of what that moment means?
- Is not the statue as much a tribute to all the firefighters who fell that day, and not just the three individual firefighters who raised the flag? But is it a victory for diversity if we can only recognize and celebrate those moments where we are actually pictured or represented? Can we not also celebrate other moments of other diverse groups and still claim them as our own, as members in good standing of the same community?
- Can we celebrate diversity without including all the prerequisite groups involved and not just the most often identified members of the diverse community? What is the acceptable representation prerequisite?
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The ancient Romans had a penchant for accepting other cultures God’s as their own. They had no particular prejudice against another faith’s God as long as it did not challenge the authority of Rome. In the state cathedral, they had the statues of all the gods ó their own and the adopted gods of others. But they had one statue without a head or a name to avoid offending any god of whom they were not yet aware. A solution? No, of course not. Just a historical musing to show that honoring everyone fairly is not a new issue or a unique one in history. On September 11, hundreds of firefighters, police, and EMTs died in their efforts to save people from dying. They did not rush into the building as men, women, whites, blacks or other diverse groupings; they went in as people. They were not seeking to save men, women, whites, blacks, or other diverse groupings; they went in to save people. They passed no person or chose no person based on their race, color, gender, national origin, religion or sexual orientation. They were just out to save people. They understood, they actually got it. Do we actually believe we honor them with a debate of diversity distribution, one side or the other? Maybe we need to forget statues and monuments in honor of those who fell on September 11. Save the TV specials, books, novelty items, commemorative stamps, poems, flowers, pictures, and all the other symbols of national remembrance. Maybe we should instead make it our professional and personal mission to spread and teach one simple lesson from the selfless acts of those who died on that horrible day. Maybe it is time we told each other, “I get it.” I have no memory of any event in my adult life that has so eloquently delivered the true message of real diversity. No lecture, speech, seminar, or sensitivity session has ever succeeded in delivering this compelling and critical message so completely. Maybe that is the simple and eloquent message we should take from the sacrifices of September 11. Maybe that is their true monument: not bronze, brass, or marble; not words chiseled by a third party trying to sum up the simple clarity of their message their acts spoke so clearly and resolutely. Never have so many so clearly demonstrated the difference between rhetoric and symbolic trash by truly putting it on the line to save people, people. No “checkbook liberals,” latent racists, or gender bashers that awful day, just people. They got it. I get it. Do you get it? Have a great day recruiting!