Following the last tear shed, last note sung and last word spoken at Saturday's memorial service for the five servicemen slain locally in an attack by a lone gunman on July 16, what's next?
Will we continue to be the same patriotic, military-honoring, flag-waving, good-deed-doing city we've been since the Thursday in which terrorism punched a hole in our veneer, or will something uglier, meaner and more calloused replace that populace?
More than a decade ago, in the days following the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the country was more unified than it had been since World War II.
"America is united," President George W. Bush said. And it was true.
Republicans and Democrats, black and white, Christian and Jew (and, yes, Muslim) were aghast at what had been wrought on the country by people who didn't like the way we lived.
"How dare they?" we defiantly said.
When Bush embraced New York City firefighter Bob Beckwith in front of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings, we couldn't help but have a lump in our throats over the thousands of people who had perished.
But the unity didn't last. It wasn't long before Democrats and Republicans were at each other's throats again, before the flags were put away and before the adherents of one religion were accusing adherents of another of being the problem.
The wartime allegiance shown to President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II was never shown to Bush. It was a different sort of war, after all, one without a given enemy. So we all had opinions about the justification of our military forces invading a country in order to fight a sect of people and not a country that sought war against us.
Technology also had changed the rubric. Whatever Roosevelt said during WWII, we swallowed because we didn't know differently. Today, the Internet allows us up-close access to the battlefield and to every conceivable opinion about how war is or should be conducted.
Chattanooga's 9/11 moment brought similar unity.
Black and white alike wept at the impromptu memorial of mementos at the military recruiting center where bullets first burst through glass on July 16. Children lined Chattanooga National Cemetery and waved American flags at as the hearse passed bearing the body of Staff Sgt. David Wyatt to his final resting place. Strangers stopped members of the Chattanooga Police Department to say thanks for what they did to end the slaughter.
Today, a month to the day of the deadly attack, a permanent memorial to the five servicemen will be dedicated at the military recruiting center. A flagpole and a bronze sculpture will be part of the memorial, which had to be approved by property owners who just as easily could have said they didn't want their places of business thought of in the same breath as the location where a terroristic shooter began his barrage.
On Sept. 1, only a month and a half after the shootings, a 65-foot ribbon sculpture fashioned by internationally known Peter Lundberg of Vermont will rise from the ground at the sculpture field at Montague Park. The sculptor is donating his time and most of his crew to help with the installation, which has the working name of "Five Anchors Strong" (for the anchor on each service branch's symbol) and will be one of the tallest sculptures he has created.
In what other city could such memorial tributes be executed on such short notice?
It took nearly five years after 9/11 for construction to begin on the World Trade Center Memorial, and the memorial didn't open until the day after the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Though the sculpture and the memorial at the recruiting center here in Chattanooga may not be the last words on tributes to the fallen five, the short time it took for people to come together and move forward on both plans speaks to the feelings the city had over what occurred.
May the "what next" for Chattanooga be a bond of unity that continues the genuine feelings of shared compassion, shared love of country and shared appreciation for those who protect us that permeated the city after July 16. May we continue to be a place where a liberal vice president, who only recently lost his own son, can find solace in the embrace of a conservative city that lost five sons it proudly called its own. And may we be a community that does all of that in spite of what might otherwise divide us.