The VigilanceVoice
Wednesday- March 13, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 183

The Eternal Eye Of Vigilance
Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

        GROUND ZERO, New York City, Mar. 13--Vigilance comes in degrees.   Or so I learned from a good, dear friend.  It also has an eternal vigilant eye, one that sees most clearly through a camera lens.
      Day before yesterday, I sent my friend, Emily, a copy of my story on September 11.  Its focus was to memorialize the "Unsung Heroes" of Nine Eleven.  Her brother, an international war correspondent/photographer, had been the only journalist killed at the World Trade Center--a hero with a camera.  I wanted her to know I was thinking of him.
      Her e-mail response deepened my understanding of Vigilance.  It was:
      "The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance......even when it costs and hurts."
      The words "eternal vigilance" had an impact.   They reminded me that Vigilance is composed of degrees, that it can be modified to expand or contract its essence-- "Minor Vigilance," or "Extreme Vigilance," "Occasional Vigilance" or "Eternal Vigilance" 

Bill Biggart

       Emily, I realized, lives in a world of Eternal Vigilance.  She was sent there by the death of her brother who rushed down to Ground Zero immediately after the attack and was killed taking pictures of human beings sacrificing their lives and safety for other human beings.
        Emily and I had been together on the morning of September 11 when the first plane hit the Twin Towers.   We were sitting at Starbucks in the East Village enjoying our morning coffee and talking before she went to work and I began my daily routine of writing.  It was a sunny, cheerful  morning when the Beast Of Terror decided to vomit on American soil.   I threw my laptop into my pack and told her I was going down to Ground Zero to record history.  She gave me a big hug and told me to be careful and that I was crazy.  I just smiled at her.  
          What either of us didn't know was her brother, Bill Biggart, was heading in the same direction--loading up his cameras, rushing down to the World Trade Center epicenter to shove his lenses in the faces of the firefighters,  rescue workers and civilians, preserving moments of heroism and horror, recording the legacy of human sacrifice and courage that spontaneously arises in times of crisis.  Like so many that day, he was not supposed to die in combat in Manhattan--his home from the far-off wars he reported.  New York City was his sanctuary where he embraced family and loved ones.  The irony of his death occurring  here was devastating to Emily--to all his loved ones.
        Bill Biggart scoured the earth in embattled countries taking pictures of man's inhumanity to man. He provided the world with close up pictures of faces and expressions that embossed the pain of violence, and perhaps stirred in all who viewed his portraits of human suffering the message that it was time to find an end to human destruction. 
        While at the end of that horrible day I returned to the East Village; Bill Biggart didn't.   He was buried in the rubble with the firefighters he was taking pictures of;  his camera still filled with images of pain and suffering, brimming with symbols of selfless acts of heroism, sparks of glory erupting out of the din of madness. (above pictures were shown in Newsweek Magazine in tribute to Biggart).
       When I saw Emily the next day she embraced me. Tears filled her eyes. "God, I'm so glad you're okay," she gushed.  "I worried all day about you."  I thanked her for her concern.  I was as unaware as she was that her brother had been killed while I lived.
       Emily didn't say anything to me about her brother being missing for a few days. He was famous for disappearing for days and even months in the heart of war-torn situations.  Emily told me later that one time he was missing for four months in some embattled country.  Everyone thought he had been killed..  But then he appeared, cameras full of pictures, disheveled, but alive.  She assumed he was alive, as so many thousands of family members did those first few days when they clung to hope that their loved ones might appear.
       Then, a  few days later when we met for coffee, she choked out the words-- her brother was dead.  The authorities were able to identify his fingerprints, confirming his death.   They had retrieved his cameras.
      Emily was angry at me and him, angry at war, angry at Terrorists, at violence.   She couldn't understand why we were so foolish to rush into the face of death, to stand on the edge of destruction when we had so many things to live for--our wives, our children, life itself.   I knew she was full of grief at the loss, at the insanity of Terrorism, at the waste of human life.
      I told her it was impulsive act on my part--to be in the eye of history--to record human events at one's own risk.   I told her as best I could about the feeling of having bullets whizzing past your ear, or debris shooting past, and how there was an extraordinary exhilaration of life amidst the face of death.   I tried, unsuccessfully, to assuage her anger by relating to her some of us were destined to thrive on being historians of war, and that perhaps there was some purpose far beyond the risk we took that would help end unnecessary violence.  I told her we were willing to risk our lives for that mission, and never thought twice about our own safety in doing so.  It wasn't that we were heroes or courageous, but rather it was our job, our destiny.
       She didn't buy my explanations.
       "That's insane," she admonished.  "You have a family, a wife, children, grandchildren.  Bill had a wife, family, children.  How could anything be more important than that?"
       I couldn't answer her question.    She was looking at the insanity of walking into the Mouth of the Beast just to describe its fetid breath, or show its viscera to the world.   It was difficult even for me to understand my own compulsion to walk into the fires of Hell.   To me, it wasn't a choice.   I never thought twice about the risk. I'm sure Bill didn't either.   I never made a conscious decision to be brave or courageous.   I just acted. 
      Like Bill, I was, regardless of my wife and children and grandchildren, a war correspondent--one who hungered for front-line action.   I knew the need the world had to report war's horror, and to extol the bravery of those who fought it.  Over a hundred combat operations in Vietnam had engrained in me a need to see history unfold, to spear it with the tip of my pen.  I could not imagine standing on the sidelines.  My job was to taste the grime and guts of glory so when I wrote about war, it came from the heart not the head.  Anything less would be a copy, a second generation.  There was no Truth in what another said it was like--there was only Truth in what you saw, felt, experienced at the moment.  The moment lived in your pictures, words, mind.  It was the moment of Truth when the soul of a man or woman was stripped bare, and all one had was what they were made of to count on--and that Truth overrode family and friends and personal security, just as it did the firefighters or police or emergency workers who saw only saving people and had no time to consider the danger.
       Emily shook her head.   She wouldn't budge.  Women have a different viewpoint than men about life and death.  Men have this incredible sense of invincibility.  Women bury their men--they have for eons.   There was no way I could ever convince Emily that Bill's death was "part of his job."
       So when I looked at Emily's e-mail response--"The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance......even when it costs and hurts." the words "eternal vigilance" stood out as never before.  I began to see Emily's point of view.
       For those who lost loved ones in the senseless act of Terrorism on Nine Eleven, Vigilance has a far deeper meaning than for those who witnessed the horror.   It becomes "eternal."   It becomes part of the marrow of a person's being, not just a memory of an event. Ordinary Vigilance becomes a gene within the chemistry of a "family victim" of any tragic event.  That gene flows through every blood cell, it never sleeps, never wears thin under the pressure of  time or loses its power to ignite feelings of pain and suffering mere observers of the event can only imagine. As a Survivor of Nine Eleven, I have as close an understanding as anyone who was there that day of the idea of "eternal vigilance."  But "Victim Survivors"--those who lost loved ones that day--know it as a Truth.
     That's one of the reasons my wife and I went down to Ground Zero last night to see what I have called the Shafts of Vigilance--two beams shooting up into the night sky.  They were lighted by New York City as symbols of the horror and waste of Nine Eleven and to hallmark the six-month anniversary of the tragedy.
     We walked around the tip of the island, from Seaport Village to Battery Park City.   I took pictures of the Shafts of Vigilance from various angles--from City Hall,  the Vietnam Memorial, from Battery Park, and, from a new memorial in Battery Park City.

      As I knelt in front of the battle scarred Sphere of Peace recovered from the World Trade Center, I imagined Bill Biggart shooting pictures.  I felt his hands on mine as I lay back on the cold ground, trying to capture the right angle, getting as close as I could so the picture exploded to life rather than needing to be cropped, resized, retouched.
      "Bill loved to shove his camera in the faces of war," Emily told me.  "He didn't use long lenses.  He wanted to be right there--so close you could see the pores on people's faces."
      As I struggled for the right angle, I could see the Spirits of Vigilance rising up into the night's sky--starting off as two individual beams of light, and ultimately converging into one.   Back in my school days, I remember someone telling me that infinity was a place where two parallel lines eventually met.   I thought of the Infinity of Vigilance, its Eternal Nature.   I thought that perhaps one day the pictures that Bill Biggart took that day might help converge the differences of human beings into one beam, might cleave the degrees of separation between Terrorism and Vigilance, might bridge the gap between War and Peace, Horror and Beauty.
     I tried to frame my pictures as Bill Biggart might have--with an Eternal Vigilant Eye!  I figured he would like that.  

(Below is Bill Biggart's camera and film, recovered from the debris of the WTC)









 Go To Mar. 12--Unsung Heroes Of Vigilance

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