Ten years after September 11, 2001, it has been our heart-rending duty as American citizens to give our hearts and minds over to the task of remembering hard and bitter things. We are to recall the immense and wanton destruction wrought by the attacks of ten years ago. We are to honor both those who died in the attacks and those who died in acts of rescue. We are to feel compassion for the living whose lives were forever maimed, haunted, and otherwise altered by the attacks, or by the sudden loss of their loved ones. Finally we are to “highly resolve,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, that we, as a nation, must never forget all those who sacrificed and suffered, and that the best way to honor them is to do all we can to see to it that our enemies are defeated, so that this suffering shall not have been in vain and shall never be repeated.
We have done better at some of these things than others, and as a consequence, the observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has given rise to a steady stream of small but troubling controversies. Some of them have revolved around the divisive actions of New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose willful decision to exclude all clergy, first responders, and firemen from the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero on September 11th, on the grounds that the ceremony should be only for the families of 9/11 victims, has needlessly detracted from the occasion.
But Bloomberg’s faulty reasoning was a perfect index of what has gone wrong more generally. The event we now call 9/11 was not only a great and awful event in the lives of those individuals. It was an event in the life of the American nation, and as such, touches the life of every single American citizen. The attack was an attack on America, which is why all of us bear equally the duty of remembrance. That was the spirit in which the memorial service should have been conducted.
The news coverage of thetenth anniversary had a similar defect. Immense attention was paid to the many wrenching human stories of the attack and its aftermath, but there was comparatively little attention paid to what September 11th means, and should mean, for all Americans. In fact, the finely grained depiction of the event’s wrenching human drama served to divert attention from the disturbing fact that we lack a general consensus about the event’s larger importance to our nation. And that is the deeper problem beneath the surface of the Bloomberg problem.
That we would have arrived at such a confused state of affairs only ten years after the event would have seemed almost as unimaginable as the attacks themselves, for the events of September 11th were not only dramatic and shocking, but also immediately and powerfully galvanizing. Just as the Japanese bombing of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 swiftly united a nation that had been furiously at odds about entrance into the Second World War, so the assault of September 11th intruded upon a nation that was bitterly divided and distracted by the contested presidential election of 2000 and by a host of other squabbles and obsessions. For a time, all those internal divisions and distractions were rendered moot.
The wave of patriotic sentiment that emerged was remarkable in its spontaneity and breadth. No one can forget the sudden appearance on American streets of a vast profusion of American flags, or the sudden fondness for the playing of patriotic songs in public places. But the event’s influence rapidly dissipated, and the flags were soon put away. Soon many Americans were feeling a growing level of unease and even defensiveness and guilt about the nation’s alleged Islamophobia, sentiments that increasingly overshadowed any anxiety about the possibility of another attack. More and more Americans have been willing to take seriously the idea, peddled by figures as various as the literary critic Susan Sontag, the Colorado professor Ward Churchill, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that America was somehow to blame for the attacks, and fully deserved them. In addition, there has always been a significant minority of Americans who firmly believe that the attacks themselves were an “inside job,” since an event of such magnitude could not have taken place without the active involvement, or at least complicity, of the Bush-Cheney administration. According to a 2006 Scripps-Howard/Ohio University poll, 36% of Americans thought it likely that government officials had either participated in the attacks or had chosen not to interfere in order to stop them. Even if the actual number of such skeptics was far lower, say 20%, the figure is only slightly less startling, with no less troubling implications. It shows what can happen when national consensus starts to disintegrate. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that includes a vacuum of shared meaning. Hence the flourishing of conspiracy theories under such circumstances.
Given the lack of any generally agreed-upon public meaning of September 11th, we have naturally found it hard to arrive at a means of commemorating the date properly. The least controversial way to do it is to individualize the commemoration. This was precisely the tack taken by Maya Lin’s highly successful Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, a monument whose very name signaled that the purpose was to honor the individual veterans rather than their cause. Lin’s design was a collective tombstone, upon which were inscribed some 58,000 names of those individuals who lost their lives in Vietnam, but that eschewed any reference to the larger war or the nation. Critics blasted the wall as a “black gash of shame,” but that is not the way that millions of profoundly emotional visitors have seen it. They were willing to accept, and perhaps have been relieved by, the memorial’s bracketing of any question of the war’s meaning, since it offered a means of grieving their loss without having to consider such matters.
Something of the same approach is being taken by the new 9/11 memorial, located on the former site of the World Trade Center, which was finally opened to victims’ families on the tenth anniversary of the attacks and to the public today. It too features the names of victims—nearly 3,000, including those from Pennsylvania and Virginia as well as those who died in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center—in this case, inscribed on bronze panels, deployed around pools with waterfalls. One sees a similarly individualizing thrust on the website for the memorial and museum, in features such as “9/11: Events of the Day,” “Oral Histories,” and “Make History”—the last of which is to be “a collective telling of the events of 9/11 through the eyes of those who experienced it,” to which one is encouraged to “Add Your Story.” The website has an excellent “9/11 Interactive Timeline,” which describes in considerable detail the sequence of events. But nowhere does it offer an explanation of the motives behind the “terrorist attacks” themselves, or a larger view of the geopolitical struggle of which they were a part.
The title given to the memorial by its architects—“Reflecting Absence”—was also indicative of its low-key, unspecific, somewhat ethereal and non-referential character. I have no doubt that the memorial will be a beautiful place for reflection and grief, in just the way the architects intended, and that such a modest approach will turn out to be appropriate to the setting and to the historical moment, just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seems to have been for its own. But it returns us to the questions with which we began: What is being commemorated here? What is the connection between the people being remembered and the larger task that their deaths set before the nation?
Lincoln’s great words at Gettysburg sought to highlight such a connection: it is for us, the living, “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” the cause for which the fallen ones sacrificed their lives. But the new memorial seeks to obscure any such connection. If one were talking only about the tragically lost lives of some 3,000 individuals and nothing else—as if their lives had been lost in a single giant plane crash or car accident, or as the result of a random psychopathic act—there would be no way of justifying the lavish expense of or the political drama surrounding this memorial. What makes September 11th worthy of public memorializing is that it was not only an event in the lives of these individuals and their families; it was an event in the life of the American nation, an attack aimed at the American nation. In addition, it was an event that, like all great historical events, cannot be adequately understood only through the eyes of those who experienced it. This is why the Bloomberg view, that the service at Ground Zero should stay focused on the families of the victims, is both sadly myopic and entirely indicative of our historical moment.
A longer version of this article appears in the Fall 2011 issue of National Affairs.