Memorializing September 11th

Wilfred M. McClay

Fall 2011

In the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, one could predict with ease two things about the nation's observation of that grim occasion. First, that a huge amount of journalistic attention would be paid to the terrible events of ten years ago, with lengthy and reflective feature articles in magazines and newspapers, lavish photographic spreads, television specials, colloquia and panel discussions, and editorials and opinion columns. The media might, for a time, partially lift their strange, self-imposed prohibition on displaying the horrifying imagery of the attacks. We could once again see the surreal images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers; the resulting chaos in the streets of New York; the titanic collapse of the Trade Center buildings; the gargantuan plumes of smoke and fire rising from Manhattan; the bullhorn speeches; the heroism of firefighters, policemen, emergency medical teams, and other first responders; and the generosity and gritty determination of thousands of ordinary New Yorkers, along with the profound and inconsolable grief of many others. Some of the most horrifying sights we remember from that day, such as the desperate souls forced to plunge to their deaths out of the towers' high windows, might still be kept off the air. But minute attention would again be paid to the human toll of the calamity, the immense scale of destruction, and the multiple facets of suffering.

The second thing of which we could be certain is that there would be comparatively little attention paid to what September 11th means, and should mean, for Americans. In fact, the finely grained depiction of the event's wrenching human drama can, to some extent, serve to divert attention from the disturbing fact that we lack a general consensus about the event's larger importance to our nation. That fact greatly complicates the task of national remembrance. I keep by my desk an old metal sign dating back to the 1940s, bearing the words "Remember Pearl Harbor." No American, at least not until recently, would have had any doubt as to what those words meant. But there is reason to wonder whether any comparable clarity or universality of meaning inheres in the words "Remember 9/11." Many, in fact, are likely to ask: What ought we even to remember?

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 with itself over entrance into the Second World War, so the assault of September 11th intruded upon a nation that was bitterly divided by the contested presidential election of 2000 and by a host of other squabbles and obsessions. For a time, all of those internal 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. Even the rock musician Neil Young, not previously known for such sentiments, penned a stirring song in November 2001 called "Let's Roll" — the title and song being an unabashed tribute to Todd Beamer, one of the heroic passengers whose resistance helped ensure that the hijacked United Flight 93 crashed into the fields of Pennsylvania rather than into the seat of the United States government, the hijackers' intended target. The words "Let's roll!" were said to have been Beamer's last (which he preceded with the Lord's Prayer), an admirably blunt and quintessentially American exhortation to action directed at his fellow passengers. President George W. Bush echoed those same words at the conclusion of a memorable and equally hortatory November 8th speech.

As powerful as September 11th proved in its immediate effects, though, the event's influence rapidly dissipated. The flags were soon put away, and less than five years later, at the height of public anger over the Iraq War, Neil Young received a Grammy Award nomination for singing "Let's Impeach the President." Yet controversy over the Iraq War was not the sole reason that the 2001 attacks faded in importance. Although such things are impossible to measure with precision, there seems to have been 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 like the literary critic Susan Sontag, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that America was somehow to blame for the attacks, and fully deserving of them. One could argue that the luxury of entertaining such ideas and indulging in such gestures was an ironic tribute to the effectiveness of the very anti-terror efforts that Young's impeachment song protested so scathingly. The nation's impressive success in prosecuting the war on terror made it possible to contend that there was no such thing as a war on terror, and that the danger of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups had been grossly exaggerated for political purposes.

Indeed, 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. For them, the larger significance of September 11th is that it was a pretext for other things. It was "Bush's Reichstag Fire," a convenient (or manufactured) excuse for the unlawful and dictatorial aggrandizement of power. This extreme view has not been the exclusive property of a tiny minority: 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 deliberately chosen not to stop them. Leaving aside whether this stunning claim has ever had any serious evidence adduced on its account — and leaving aside also the question of the poll's accuracy — it was, if considered only in terms of the sheer numbers of Americans involved, an appalling finding. Yet it cannot be entirely dismissed. "One out of three sounds high," former congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said in response to the poll, "but that may very well be right." Even if the actual number of such skeptics is 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, including a vacuum of shared meaning. Hence the flourishing of conspiracy theories under such circumstances.

The fact that there is still so little consensus about the meaning of events so momentous and terrible, and so plainly injurious to the national life, has to be taken as an ominous sign about where we stand as a people. Much of it can be explained by the increasingly bitter and voracious character of our national politics. It has been astonishing and dismaying over the past ten years to witness the extent to which the events of September 11th, as well as our national response to them, have been absorbed almost entirely into the previously existing structure of American domestic political debates and rivalries. One might have imagined that, as had earlier been the case with the Pearl Harbor attacks, such an event would have jolted the nation into lasting unity. But one would have been wrong.

At times during these past ten years, it has seemed as if the world's conflicts are of interest to Americans only insofar as they affect the eternal struggle between Democrats and Republicans, the only struggle that really matters. Never has the nation seemed more insular; never has it appeared more unable to imagine world events in any way other than as refracted through the ceaseless battle for political advantage on American soil, specifically in Washington. If there was any doubt of this, consider how completely the most vocal critics of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act during the Bush administration, and the news media along with them, have fallen silent with the change of administrations from Bush to Obama. This silence comes despite the latter's having largely continued (and in some cases expanded) the very policies that critics found most intolerable during the Bush years. But this convenient quietude is hardly the only example. Everything that happens, from Nobel Prizes to hurricanes to Arab uprisings, is analyzed first and foremost not as a matter of justice or of the national interest, but as a matter of political advantage. The interpretation of September 11th has also been a victim of this cultural affliction.


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. Some of this difficulty is intrinsic, and comes with the anomalous territory: The events were largely without precedent, and do not fit any of the traditional commemorative categories. Although the attacks were an act of war, they were not perpetrated by warriors under the command of any identifiable political entity. There was no triumph to celebrate; as at Pearl Harbor, the attack was a national wounding, not a national victory. But unlike most of the victims of Pearl Harbor, those who bore the brunt of the September 11th attacks were largely civilians simply going about the business of their lives.

As President Bush said in his November 8th speech, Todd Beamer "didn't know he had signed on for heroism when he boarded the plane that day." Those words almost certainly apply to hundreds of others whose acts of courage during the attacks can never be known — though we do know of the valiant responses of firefighters and policemen and other individuals who risked or sacrificed their lives to aid and rescue others, both on September 11th and in the days and weeks afterward.

Clearly the first imperative in commemorating an event like September 11th has to be the simple act of honoring the fallen — our countrymen and those who died on our country's soil — and of committing ourselves as a people to remembering them by giving tangible and enduring expression to our shared grief. Such acts of shared remembrance are at the very heart of what it means to be a nation. The French writer Ernest Renan observed that "suffering in common unifies more than joy does," and that "[w]here national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort." Abraham Lincoln gave voice to precisely this insight in his Gettysburg Address, urging that knowledge of the sacrifices of those who died in the Civil War battle lead Americans to "take increased devotion" to the great cause of their nation.

But there are other, complicating reasons why we find it so difficult to commemorate an event like September 11th. The whole proposition of memorializing past events and persons, particularly those whose lives and deeds are entwined with the nation-state, has been called into question by the prevailing intellectual ethos of the day, which cares little for the authority of the past and frowns on anything that smacks of hero worship or filiopietism. That ethos is epitomized in the burgeoning academic study of "memory," a term that refers in this context not to the faculty of individual recall, nor to the more neutral and detached accounts of post-nationally minded professional historians, but instead to widely held popular understandings of the past — particularly those that revolve around the nation-state. "Memory" designates the history we all share, which is why monuments and other instruments of national commemoration are especially important in serving as expressions and embodiments of it. It is not hard to see, however, that the systematic problematizing of memory — the insistence on subjecting it to endless rounds of interrogation and suspicion, aiming precisely at the destabilization of meaning while producing endless new topics for academic seminar papers — is likely to produce impassable obstacles to the effective commemoration of the past.

Historians have always engaged in the debunking of popular misrenderings of the past, and such debunking is often fully warranted. One might think, for example, of the romantic moonlight-and-magnolias view of Southern history expressed in Gone with the Wind as an apt candidate for such criticism. But "memory studies" tends to carry the matter much further, consistently approaching collective memory as a construction of reality rather than as any kind of accurate reflection of it. Scholars in the field examine memory with a jaundiced and highly political eye, viewing nearly all claims for tradition or for a heroic past as flimsy artifice designed to serve the interests of dominant classes and individuals, and otherwise tending to reflect the class, gender, and power relations in which those individuals are embedded. Memory, wrote historian John Gillis, has "no existence beyond our politics, our social relations, and our histories." He added: "We have no alternative but to construct new memories as well as new identities better suited to the complexities of a post-national era."

Although any collective entity can be subjected to this kind of deconstructive analysis, the chief target, as Gillis's words imply, tends to be the modern nation-state, with its panoply of anthems, stories, histories, emblems, symbols, rituals, monuments, and other elements of civil religion. The modern nation-state clothes itself in all this exquisite finery, it is argued, as a way of enveloping its origins in a cloak of mystique, and manages to surround itself with an aura of reality sufficiently powerful and convincing to command the loyalties of its subjects. But its day is passing, or so scholars in the field seem universally to believe; they generally feel it incumbent upon themselves to hasten the day when it is past altogether. Hence Gillis's admonition that "we" — the referent for this pronoun is unclear, but one assumes he means other professional historians — have "no alternative but to construct new memories," more suitable to a "post-national" era. The iconoclasm of the 1960s, Gillis observed in 1994, "has been remarkably successful in desacralizing the nation-state, but the struggle is not yet over." In undertaking the task of constructing "new memories," Gillis asserts, "[w]e must take responsibility for their uses and abuses, recognizing that every assertion of identity involves a choice that affects not just ourselves but others."

The ambitions of this agenda could not be clearer. And yet it is hard to credit the self-conscious creation of such "new memories" as a very plausible idea. The programmatic skepticism induced by a belief in the constructedness of the past is hard to keep contained once it is let loose, and it tends to infect even one's own preferred normative myths, such as those of a great and irresistible post-national future. Moreover, it is hard to be credulous toward something one has fashioned with one's own hands. Such efforts at construction tend to be reminiscent of the richness of Esperanto, or the logical rigor of "Just So" stories — or, more simply, of political correctness run amok. One has to think back to the Biblical account of the Golden Calf to find an example of people willing to bow down and sacrifice themselves to something they knew they had made for themselves — and that episode did not turn out well. But what one can say without hesitation is that this outlook — skeptical of all past constructions of history, eager to substitute "better" constructions of one's own devising — makes the creation of new monuments and commemorations much more difficult than it ever has been before.

What solves the practical problem of creating monuments, at least in the short run, is the individualizing of 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. As is well known, the project was highly controversial in the early stages, and prominent Vietnam veteran (and current U.S. senator) James Webb withdrew his earlier support for such a memorial, disparaging Lin's design as a "nihilistic slab of stone." It might have been more apt, however, to call it 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 have been 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. 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 web site 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 web site has an excellent "9/11 Interactive Timeline" that 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" — is also indicative of its low-key, unspecific, somewhat ethereal and non-referential character. Perhaps such a modest approach will turn out to be appropriate to the setting, and to the historical moment, just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seemed to have been for its own. But it returns us to the question 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, but the new memorial seeks to obscure it. 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 auto 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 just a tragedy in the lives of these individuals and their families. It was an event that, like all great historical events, cannot be understood if viewed only through the eyes of those who experienced it. But when a spokesman for New York mayor Michael Bloomberg explained his decision to exclude all clergy from the tenth-anniversary observance, he emphasized the mayor's view that the service should stay focused on the families of the victims. This view is sadly, and ominously, myopic.


Mention of the 9/11 memorial, the families of the victims, and the controversies associated with the reconstruction of Ground Zero suggests yet another important way in which the task of memorializing September 11th and its victims has been made more difficult in our time — and neither academia nor ideological politics bears much direct responsibility for it.

The aftermath of the attacks exposed a relentlessly litigious and grasping side of our society, in which moral blame and legal liability can be affixed to every misfortune, however unforeseeable, and in which the tangled mess of colliding interests and political gridlock seems invariably to defeat the pursuit of the public good. The attacks were a great boon for lawyers, producing a flood of litigation and claims that has only recently begun to subside. Lawsuits (and the threat of them) by policemen, firemen, construction workers, clean-up workers, rescue workers, and other first responders have been a dismayingly constant feature of the post-September 11th climate, and they have had the inevitable effect over time of steadily diminishing the public's grateful estimation of these groups. It need hardly be said that many of their cases had merit. But it also need hardly be said that the cumulative spectacle of hundreds and hundreds of plaintiffs with their hands out cannot help but take a toll on public sympathies. All Americans felt profound compassion for the families of the victims, but the family members who complained at the size of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund awards — which averaged $2.08 million per victim — or who exploited their standing to support political causes only barely related to the attacks, or who attempted to make money from their status in various ways, have badly strained that compassion.

All of which is not unrelated to the situation at Ground Zero, where, ten years after the attacks, very little has actually been reconstructed. This stagnation has afflicted the greatest of American cities, which was able even in the depths of the Great Depression to raise the still-magnificent Empire State Building in less than 14 months. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, many brave words were spoken and loud boasts were made about how the city would bounce back and rebuild the Twin Towers even higher. But a decade has now passed, and those promises ring sickeningly hollow. The specific reasons for the failure lie in a bottomless pit of excuse-making, ego-jousting, self-interestedness, and bureaucratic inertia, and it would be an immense task to compose the indictment that would identify the individuals or groups who bear the greatest responsibility. But to do so would be pointless — or rather, would miss the most important point.

That point is a simple one: The fact that so little has been restored in ten years should be a source of deep concern to all of us. It is no small thing. It is nothing less than a national disgrace that a project of such profound symbolic importance to the American people, and to the world, has remained trapped in the entrails of petty business as usual. But one thing should be clear: This is not a failure attributable in some general way to the negligence of the American people as a whole, since they are not the ones who decide such things as the disposition of Manhattan real estate or the design of monuments and memorials. It is specifically the failure of the nation's leadership class — of its political, cultural, intellectual, legal, and business elites — and of the intersecting ways that their actions and beliefs have served to thwart a profound national need. Any attempt to memorialize September 11th should above all else express American resiliency, American strength, and American determination to prevail over the forces represented by the attacks. A chronically troubled work in progress expresses the opposite things, with a vividness that needs no elaboration.

But in America, a failure of the leadership class need not mean a comprehensive failure of the nation. There are always reasons to be hopeful about our country, which has a remarkable ability to renew itself. And the greatest good is often done, as William Blake put it, in "minute particulars," in small but focused ways that individual citizens can manage on their own initiative. Such people retain the capacity to remember, and know instinctively how to keep the flame of memory alive.

My favorite keepers of the September 11th flame are the Freeport Flag Ladies, three Maine women who have for the past ten years kept a simple but profound weekly observance of the event. During their "Tuesday on the Hill," which takes place each week on Main Street in Freeport, they hold large American flags in remembrance of the events of September 11th and in honor of the service and sacrifice of American troops. They are often joined by others, including military personnel home from Iraq or Afghanistan, or 9/11 family members. Weekly photographs of Tuesdays on the Hill are posted on their web site, along with a special message each week (which is also e-mailed to a list of military families who have signed up) written by Elaine Greene, one of the three ladies. Her message for August 16 of this year offers a sense of the tone and spirit of them all:

What shall we give you as a token
That our support for you will not be broken
We could shatter the heavens with heartfelt song
Of our deep love and gratitude that is so strong.

The ladies also regularly make the two- to three-hour drive to Bangor International Airport or Pease International Airport to greet soldiers who are being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq or are returning from deployments. They present the troops with gifts and take photos of them, which are later shared with them and their families in the form of CDs that the ladies create and mail out every week. They send special packages to combat hospitals, containing neck pillows, clothing, and reading material. In these many ways, they seek to remind the soldiers and their families that there are people in America who care about them and honor them. Their actions form a living memorial, reflecting presence rather than absence.

The Freeport Flag Ladies probably haven't read Renan, but they fully understand his words regarding sacrifice, and the responsibilities imposed by a nation's grief. They aren't suffering from gridlock. They aren't suing anyone; they aren't demanding that the government subsidize them or compensate them for the income they have had to forego, or for the bowls of chowder they have missed out on during their long drives on those icy roads. They aren't anti-Muslim bigots. And they aren't waiting on elite figures in New York or Washington or Cambridge to tell them how September 11th should be most tastefully memorialized by sensitive Americans.

Instead, they took their own steps to observe the tenth anniversary in a big way — importing a piece of steel from the World Trade Center and transforming Freeport into "9/11 Central" for all of Maine. Such keepers do not suffer from ambivalence about the meaning of September 11th, and their love and clarity are both tonic and contagious. New York, and the rest of America, need to find a way to share in their spirit.

Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


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