Americans will soon commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The heroic acts of first responders will be honored, and the dead will be mourned. Solemn events and somber rituals will permeate the nation. Yet, sober ceremonies should not mislead us into thinking the public remembrance of this horrific event is a settled matter.
Consider the debate that arose 10 years ago during the observance of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist assault on the American homeland. The day began with a moment of silence throughout New York City at 8:46 a.m., marking the instant the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At Ground Zero President Barack Obama contributed a measure of gravity to the occasion by reading a passage from the Bible. Former president George W. Bush offered words of comfort to those who grieved over loved ones lost. A reading of the names of the dead, now a traditional centerpiece of 9/11 ceremonies, drew tears.
Yet, on the same day and just a few blocks away at City Hall Park another group of citizens gathered to recall 9/11 in a more irreverent way. They were ignored by the intense media coverage of events at Ground Zero but monitored by a sizable police presence. Their alternative commemoration gave voice to perspectives absent at the mainstream ceremony by recognizing not only heroes and victims in America but all those in faraway places such as Afghanistan and Iraq who suffered from the War on Terror, launched in response to the attacks on the United States. Photos of dead women and children from Iraq were displayed along with boots representing dead American soldiers. Marchers carried signs denouncing the government’s use of torture and the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in the United States.
Public comments in the media on the Ground Zero observance reinforced this sense of disagreement over the meaning of 9/11. Those inclined to be reverent recalled how 9/11 had brought Americans together in a burst of patriotic fervor. Many said they felt 9/11 represented “hope” for America because it brought out the bravery of first responders. Others expressed gratification that Americans now came together to “honor their heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion to freedom’s cause.”
Contrarians demurred. Johanna Clearfield, a woman who lived in Brooklyn and attended the alternative commemoration in Manhattan, was not willing to limit the memory of the terrorist attacks to a single day. She lamented the fact that the ceremony at Ground Zero precluded grieving the loss of “thousands of victims of the global war on terror.” A resident of New Mexico insisted that Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes. And Joseph DeLappe of Reno proclaimed that since 9/11, America had gone down a “dark rabbit hole of war, fear, torture, and nationalism.”
How people respond to traumatic events and the pain of others, of course, is always unpredictable. But such responses have consequences. Traditions such as reading the names of the dead or celebrating heroic first responders allow Americans to show patriotism and their ability to care — traits essential to claiming a virtuous political identity. Yet, a failure to come to terms with the violence committed in our name can obscure violent streaks in our national character and limit public scrutiny of U.S. brutality, possibly facilitating the repetitions of such actions in the future. The Ground Zero event in 2011 reinforced the honorable view of American life; the alternative gathering asked us to consider our transgressions.