Tot’s empty little boots are symbol at hallowed site

It is the shoes that stop me. They are brown and look new, the rubber on the soles still thick, black and unmarked. They are toddler-size boots, made for bouncing in sandboxes and climbing on furniture. They are hanging by their laces from a length of chainlink fence.

I had not planned it this way. Had not made a special effort to be in this particular city during this particular week. Hadn’t even thought about it until I was on the way to catch the plane for a business trip.

That’s when I realized: Oh, God, that’s the city where it happened. Oh, God, it was right around this time of year. Oh, God, I have to go to the site. Which is how I have come to be standing here, staring through chainlinks into an empty space.

Used to be, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building stood on this spot. But it ceased to exist on April 19 of ‘95. Came down in a concussive explosion that shattered glass for miles around. Took the lives of 168 women and men. And boys and girls. And babies. Lord, babies, too.

Now there is only a scar in the earth where the building used to be. And construction machines that sit unused, resting from their labors. A memorial is being built upon this site. One hundred sixty-eight empty chairs. A reflecting pool. A blast-scarred tree representing the survivors. All slowly taking shape behind the fence.

In the meantime, the fence itself is the memorial, festooned with teddy bears and rosary beads, poems and caps, name badges and T-shirts. There is a strand of palm, perhaps from someone’s Palm Sunday worship. There is a placard bearing a message from a credit-union worker to his slain colleagues.

There are dolls representing the icons of joyous childhood — Snoopy and Minnie Mouse are here. So are Chuckie from Rugrats and the Taco Bell dog. There are pictures — somebody’s nana, somebody’s son, somebody’s mom, somebody’s baby girl, somebody’s dad. Somebody that somebody else loved more deeply than they knew while they had the chance to say. All of them dead now. All of them dead now and gone.

And there are shoes. Hanging heavily from a chainlink fence on a windless afternoon.

I am joined by many people. Hundreds, maybe. All filing in soft reverence past the fence, sometimes examining the objects there with a deference ordinarily reserved for religious icons.

For the most part we walk in silence. Indeed, there is a stillness here that seems to swallow sound, to render even footfalls mute. When someone does speak too loudly, it seems an offense against decency itself. Hush, you want to say. This is not a place for talking. This is ground suffering has made sacred.

Besides, even if you talk, what is there to say? What words do justice to the monstrous thing that happened here? What words make it make sense?

Four years later, we’ve learned so much about the kind of thinking that brought us to this. Learned about a movement of disaffected zealots who take guns into the woods, calling themselves militias and declaring war against the national government. Learned all their crazy theories — black helicopters, U.N. invasion, and God save the white Christian from bowing before the New World Order. We’ve even met the killer that movement produced, looked into the unfathomable eyes of the crew-cut young man who masterminded this carnage.

But somehow I still can’t get my mind around it. Still can’t answer the questions that haunt me here at the fence, like ghosts. What cause could have been noble enough, what anger might have been righteous enough, to justify this willful massacre of innocents? To take all these people away?

I am smiled at by somebody’s sister, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s friend. Just glossy images now. Just memories.

And all I get for my questions is more questions. More raw pain.

Silent mourners shuffle past as I pause at a chainlink fence touching a rubber sole that has never seen a sandbox. It strikes me that there is nothing quite so empty as a child’s new shoe that will never once be worn.