The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twenty years after 9/11, its memorialization remains contested

Should 9/11 remembrances include the global war on terror?

A flag bearing the likeness of the former World Trade Center destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is flown at half-staff during a ceremony to place a time capsule and plaque outside the Oculus transit station to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on April 30 in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
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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.

This debate over the extent to which we are a virtuous people has not only infiltrated our public remembrance of 9/11 and other major events in American history, such as Vietnam, but has seeped into the corners of personal memories and emotions. Lisa Beamer, whose husband died in the attempt to take Flight 93 before it crashed in Shanksville, Pa., expressed pride that his actions had patriotic and heroic implications because the flight may have crashed into the nation’s Capitol and taken more lives. On the other hand, Lyz Glick, who also lost a spouse on the same plane, steadfastly refused to see his actions as patriotic and argued in her memoir that his efforts were only about getting back to the family he loved. Marian Fontana shared Glick’s views. Refusing to connect her story to one of national honor or even victimization, she insisted that the death of her husband — a New York City fireman killed at Ground Zero — was not a public act. She did not see 9/11 as an attack upon the nation but only a tragedy that destroyed the family she loved.

People understood as the heroes and victims of 9/11 will be treated with respect this year. Michael Rieger, a government photographer who worked at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the terrorist assaults, has already announced a major photo exhibit honoring the “heroes of the responses to the 9/11 attacks.” To be sure 9/11 was a day filled with heroes and innocent victims; first responders selflessly sought to save others and merit our respect. The guiltless people simply working at their desks who were brutally murdered will be remembered, too.

Yet, just as it would be unreasonable to stipulate that a remembrance of Pearl Harbor should leave out the larger context of World War II, a commemoration of 9/11 without a reference to the global conflict that followed makes no sense and indicates a reluctance to dwell on the ripple effects of the terrorist assault and the carnage it brought to innocents in various parts of the world.

There are signs that threads of wartime memory are beginning to seep into 9/11 remembrances. Recently, local observances of 9/11 in towns such as Montrose, Colo., and Pittsfield, Mass., have expanded their gaze to include tributes to veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year in Greenfield, Ind., first responders from 9/11 and medical workers fighting the effects of the pandemic were honored alongside the town’s war vets under the rubric of “hometown heroes.” In Freeport, Maine, three local women who began waving American flags every week in 2001 to honor the heroes and fallen of 9/11 eventually included the sacrifices of the soldiers sent to fight the War on Terror in their commemoration. In all these cases and others, however, the ceremonies insist that the focus of remembrance keep its eyes on the prize of American honor. Until our remembrances shake off this nationalist framing, they won’t recognize the full extent of human tragedy that 9/11 spread throughout the globe — and U.S. participation in it.