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Same place for prayer, but a reason so different

By STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001


My 6-year-old son, Christopher, smiled at me.

"It's a good thing the Capitol's not going to fall down, Dad," he said reassuringly.

Before Tuesday, no first-grader would ever question whether the tallest building in town would come tumbling down. But the world is a different place. Childhood innocence is threatened.

The Capitol is still there, towering over Tallahassee's skyline. But I did not feel like being way up inside it Tuesday morning after two jetliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Call it irrational fear. I had previously arranged to make a stop at the Division of Elections on the 18th floor to get some records. As I waited to see attorney Amy Tuck, I saw another woman crying at her desk. Her colleagues had stopped working and were riveted to an office TV. The building was under a "voluntary evacuation."

I picked up my papers and left abruptly. The nice view of the Adams Street retail district below suddenly seemed threatening. I wanted out.

The following morning, I was in Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, where Gov. Jeb Bush attended Mass along with dozens of children who attend a local Catholic school.

As the governor listened from a front-row pew, the Rev. Philip Fortin warned against people feeling hatred toward the terrorists.

"I'm not saying these people shouldn't be punished. They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," said the priest, a former U.S. Navy officer. "It shouldn't be done out of hatred because when we start acting out of hatred we become no better than the people who did these horrible things. When we give ourselves over to hate, a little piece of us dies."

Then parishioners recited the Lord's Prayer: "... forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Forgive?

A cold, dark rage is building within Americans. Many feel a justifiable feeling of intense hatred at the terrorists.

The Defense Department promises a "sustained and broad" response to the attacks, and Americans are very easily distracted and are notorious for short attention spans. So this crisis may test people in ways they never expected.

America is in for a long, bloody, horrifying war against an unseen enemy that puts a much lower value on human life. As we now know, terrorists are not just "over there" in Afghanistan; they're here. They drove on our highways, lived in our rental apartment complexes, attended our flight schools.

It won't be easy to channel that hatred at an unseen enemy. But for now, there is a deep sense of commitment among Americans, and Floridians.

About 3,000 people stood in the Capitol courtyard at noon Friday to pray for the victims, their families and their countrymen. There was no talk of hate or vengeance, only prayer and putting the country back together.

They stood side by side, many in red, white and blue, some of them sobbing. College students, working people, state employees and lobbyists, they recited the Lord's Prayer and sang The Star Spangled Banner together as a giant flag fluttered in the breeze in front of the Old Capitol. Americans, united.

They cheered Gov. Bush when he urged the crowd to "pray for our leaders, especially our President," and said, "We will rebuild our country."

The prayer service was held in the very same place where nine months earlier, thousands of Americans were told "Don't stop praying" and "our fundamental democracy is under attack."

They were talking not about terrorism on that day in December, but about the way the presidential election turned out. So much has changed.

On Friday, state agency directors presented their proposed budgets for next year -- a tedious exercise under the best of circumstances.

Transportation Secretary Tom Barry wore a red ribbon on his lapel in recognition of Friday's national day of mourning, and he wore a bleary eyed look on his face. That was understandable: He had spent the past two days driving home from Boston.

The future of Florida's right of way acquisition trust fund wasn't his top priority at the moment. "All of this puts this presentation in a nothing mode, to be honest," Barry said.

-- Steve Bousquet is the Times' deputy capital bureau chief.

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