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Orlando Sentinel

Terrorism Puts Politics In Their Place

By Iván Román, | Sentinel Staff Writer

September 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- There's a saying here when trying to make fiercely insular politicians put things in the proper perspective: "Puerto Rico is not the bellybutton of the world."

The attacks that turned the World Trade Center and the Pentagon into fireballs and mounds of dust, rocks and twisted metal surely brought that home to all in the Caribbean thousands of miles away.

All the pettiness of internal politics, hand wringing about the sour economy, even the obsessive talk of the Vieques controversy were pushed behind the images of haggard relatives seeking missing loved ones walking the streets of Manhattan with pictures in their hands.

In local papers and call-in radio shows to New York City, the depth of the grief here is just beginning to become known. Minds have space for little else besides worries about when and how we go to war. Hearts swell with sorrow for neighbors whose kin died in the tragedy or face the agony of waiting for the bad news.

Such as the woman whose son, an Army sergeant, was likely near the walls where the commercial airliner sliced into the Pentagon. Or the grandmother whose grandson got from the 108th floor down to the 70th floor, then was not heard from again. Or the mother of the executive secretary who frantically called her boss to say the office was on fire and she was going to die.

With horrendous news such as this, those who planned to make news by protesting once again in Vieques when the U.S. Navy begins more bombing exercises this month decided to hold back. They still want the Navy out, but it's time now to show solidarity with the people of the United States.

"In Vieques, we work for peace in our community, and we believe this peace must extend throughout the entire world," states a letter to President Bush signed by 19 organizations.

With 1,200 people lined up to give blood and military reservists called to duty this week, it is certainly a time for much reflection. Monsignor Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, archbishop of San Juan, took it a step further by telling politicians that they needed to look within and think about more than just grief and justice.

In a memorial service 24 hours after the twin towers crumbled, he told political enemies packed into San Juan Cathedral and thousands listening on the radio that this should jar them to jointly talk of ways to wipe out the daily, constant and often shrill war of words.

"One of the lessons of this tragedy for us in Puerto Rico could be to start a new chapter and a new style, a truly Christian one, to overcome the stridency and the personal attacks in our public discourse and in all our public and private lives," Gonzalez said.

Some said they would take it to heart, but now the needs of too many are more direct. Of more than 1,200 calls concerned relatives made to the local help hotline since Tuesday, 800 are still unresolved. Authorities await official lists of 5,000 people missing in New York City to get a grip on how many families are immersed in grief.

But they are not waiting for official Red Cross death notifications. Counselors and chaplains began making house calls Friday to those awaiting answers.

"We need to help people manage that level of anxiety," said Ileana Rivera, director of Puerto Rico's Emergency Management Agency.

But like those in the United States, many are doing their part by offering comfort in churches or outdoor vigils.

"The prayers help strengthen the families to get through the sadness and the pain," said Maria Oliveras, 34, a McDonald's manager who came to the service on her lunch break. "And it helps us all look more toward God to get us through what's to come."

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