Confused commemorations

For many Americans, 9/11 has become a deeply personal affair. An Englishwoman in Washington reports

Helen Searls

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Topics Politics

One year on from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, America struggled to commemorate those horrific events in a fitting and meaningful manner.

It is strange that, on the anniversary of a day that profoundly touched virtually all Americans, it was hard to find appropriate words, actions or symbols to mark 11 September. Of course everyone recognised the importance of the day – President George W Bush and his cabinet led memorial ceremonies up and down the East Coast, the television networks cut all programmes in favour of blanket coverage of 9/11 commemorations, the newspapers brought out special editions and the streets were once again awash with the stars and stripes.

But for all the speeches, the acres of coverage and hours of TV footage, marking the anniversary proved a peculiarly difficult task.

There was no single act of remembrance that united the nation. In Washington DC, for example, there were hundreds of commemorative events across the city. From the official service at the Pentagon, to a procession on Memorial Bridge, to a concert at the Lincoln Memorial (featuring recent American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson), to candlelit church services, there was certainly no shortage of things to do.

Yet in workplaces and among friends, many were uncertain about what would be most appropriate. Some observed a private moment of silence, while others wore discreet red, white and blue ribbons. Some displayed colossal flags the size of a building, while others chose to do nothing at all.

Even the official ceremonies had an air of incoherence about them. The commemorative events in Pennsylvania, New York and the Pentagon overlapped so that it was impossible to follow one without missing another. The minutes of silence were at different times at the three different crash sites. And in New York there were different minutes’ silences to reflect when the two planes hit the towers and when the two towers collapsed.

Doubtless this reflected the chaotic nature of the events 12 months ago, and it seemed to suit the families of the victims, who were keen to ensure that every element of the tragedy was remembered. But as a national act of remembrance it was a non-starter. People who were not at the ceremonies were uncertain about which minute to observe while the networks were forced to cut from one ceremony to another in a totally undignified fashion, in order to ensure that all the significant events were captured.

Even more noticeable was the fact that no clear message came out of the anniversary. This was most obvious at the observance at Ground Zero in New York. There the organisers deemed that there were simply no new words or speeches appropriate for the gravitas of the occasion. Instead they chose to read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (a wholly inappropriate oration about the sacrifice of fallen soldiers), and then read out the 2801 names of those who died at that crash site.

However, the wisdom of this decision became clear when others elsewhere tried to lend more contemporary meaning to the anniversary. For President Bush, the terrorist attack one year earlier was the start of the War on Terror. He used the occasion of the anniversary to whip up support for his campaign to wage war on Iraq. Standing against the emotive backdrop of the Statue of Liberty he resolved that ‘we will not allow any terrorist or tyrant to threaten civilisation with weapons of mass murder’. He may not have mentioned Iraq by name but people were left in little doubt about what he meant.

But for many the president’s words were quite inappropriate, as for them the significance of 9/11 is quite different. A neighbour of mine recently handed me a pamphlet entitled ‘How to talk to your children about 9/11’. Rather than being roused to war my neighbour and the authors of the pamphlet are moved by the need for peace. For them and many like them the main lesson of 9/11 is the need for tolerance.

For many more Americans 9/11 has become a deeply personal affair. People endlessly talk about how 9/11 changed their lives, but they refer to private individual changes rather than changes within society as a whole. Some talk about how the events pulled them closer to their families and loved ones. Others find themselves permanently stressed, anxious or depressed since the events.

In fact, the more one examines the private reactions to 9/11 the clearer it is that there really could not have been one national act of remembrance on the anniversary. Unlike Pearl Harbor, when the events of one day launched the nation into a clear and focused war effort, 9/11 launched nothing comparable. The Bush administration may have launched the war on terror, but as cultural critic Susan Sontag notes in the New York Times, the war on terror is more like the war on poverty, drugs or cancer. It is a metaphor rather then a real war with a beginning and end (1). Hardly a thing to unify a nation.

9/11 touched us all – but in the absence of any clear national sense of purpose and direction the event has become an increasingly private and individuated experience. Little wonder, then, that for most people the reading of the names of the individual victims was the most meaningful experience of the day.

In the absence of anything else, the day is just a series of personal tragedies repeated over and over again, with an entire nation sharing in the pain and the grief.

Read on:

First anniversary, by Jennie Bristow

One year on: what the papers said, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Real battles, empty metaphors Susan Sontag, New York Times 10 September 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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