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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11, grief, and the politics of victimhood
Posted by Jill | 6:04 AM
Nestled in the New York Times on Labor Day weekend was an extraordinary article asking, "As 9/11 Nears, a Debate Rises: How Much Tribute Is Enough?":

Again it comes, for the sixth time now -- 2,191 days after that awful morning -- falling for the first time on a Tuesday, the same day of the week.

Again there will be the public tributes, the tightly scripted memorial events, the reflex news coverage, the souvenir peddlers.

Is all of it necessary, at the same decibel level -- still?

Each year, murmuring about Sept. 11 fatigue arises, a weariness of reliving a day that everyone wishes had never happened. It began before the first anniversary of the terrorist attack. By now, though, many people feel that the collective commemorations, publicly staged, are excessive and vacant, even annoying.

''I may sound callous, but doesn't grieving have a shelf life?'' said Charlene Correia, 57, a nursing supervisor from Acushnet, Mass. ''We're very sorry and mournful that people died, but there are living people. Let's wind it down.''

Some people prefer to see things condensed to perhaps a moment of silence that morning and an end to the rituals like the long recitation of the names of the dead at ground zero.

But many others bristle at such talk, especially those who lost relatives on that day.

''The idea of scaling back just seems so offensive to me when you think of the monumental nature of that tragedy,'' said Anita LaFond Korsonsky, whose sister Jeanette LaFond-Menichino died in the World Trade Center. ''If you're tired of it, don't attend it; turn off your TV or leave town. To say six years is enough, it's not. I don't know what is enough.''

As the ragged nature of life pushes on, it is natural that the national fixation on an ominous event becomes ruptured and its anniversary starts to wear out. Once-indelible dates no longer even incite curiosity. On Feb. 15, how many turn backward to the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898?

Few Americans give much thought anymore on Dec. 7 that Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 (the date to live in infamy). Similar subdued attention is paid to other scarring tragedies: the Kennedy assassination (Nov. 22, 1963), Kent State (May 4, 1970), the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995).

Generations, of course, turn over. Few are alive anymore who can recall June 15, 1904, when 1,021 people died in the burning of the steamer General Slocum, the deadliest New York City disaster until Sept. 11, 2001. Also, the weight of new wrenching events crowds the national memory. Already since Sept. 11, there have been Katrina and Virginia Tech. And people have their own more circumscribed agonies.

''Commemoration aims to simplify, but life as it's lived and feelings as they're felt are never simple,'' said John Bodnar, a professor of history at Indiana University.

The Sept. 11 attack may well have an unusually long resonance. It was a watershed moment in the nation's history. And it is a tragedy named after a date. But the way it is recalled is sure to undergo editing.

No one has ever questioned the need for those who lost spouses, mothers, fathers, other relatives and friends that day to mourn in whatever way they choose. People vary greatly in how they deal with grief, and how long it takes for them to begin living their lives again. When someone you love dies, there's always a tightrope one walks between the need to grieve and remember, and the reality that as long as one is here, one might as well continue to live.

A study by the WTC Family Center reflects this tightrope as the 9/11 families approached the sixth anniversary of the attacks. But it also reflects a resiliance by a sizable number of survivors of the 9/11 dead that should give pause to those in red states who cling to 9/11 as if to a security blanket, sitting up nights worrying that Scary Brown Men are coming to bomb the local Wal-Mart.

To the question "How are you doing?", 43% indicated they are "doing well or OK" and 32% responded that they are doing "moderately well with some difficulties." That's three-quarters of the bereaved who responded who are at least making some steps towards getting on with life.

It's normal to grieve, and it's also normal for that grief to become less raw over time. That doesn't mean one forgets, but it is part of the miracle of healing of which the human psyche is capable. It's tempting to regard the dulling of the ache as something wrong, something shameful, but in reality it's far healthier for a wound to heal, even with scar tissue, than to remain an open, gaping sore, forever open to infection. But the duration and method of grief belongs to the families.

It sure as heck doesn't belong to politicians and corporations.

But today, six years after the attacks, the co-opting of an American tragedy will be heard throughout the land, whether it's still appropriate or not. The names will be read once again in lower Manhattan, only this year the reading will provide an opportunity for Rudy Giuliani, who is expected to give a short reading, to remind everyone of his status as the self-styled Saint of 9/11, despite his culpability in the deaths of dozens of firefighters and the illnesses of rescue and recovery workers. The morning news shows will show footage of the towers and the 24/7 news cycle will be full of chatter about where the host was that day -- so Americans living in circumstances where they are at very little risk can have their morbid enjoyment of it once again....or so that they remember to continue to be afraid.

In New York City, millions of people will go to work, just as they have done every day since the city reopened after the attacks. They think about the possibility it could happen again, but they go about their lives, because they have to. It's long fascinated me that the frothing mouthbreathers who have been calling conservative talk radio shows for the past six years shrieking about Scary Brown Men are the ones living in states that aren't likely to be attacked. It's as if they want a piece of the 9/11 action for themselves, so they feel they "belong" to the tragedy. Getting on with their lives isn't necessary, because they don't have the immediate pain of the open, gaping wound that will never heal because the President of the United States, the gasbags of conservative talk radio, and media companies looking for ratings insist on picking the scab open every time September 11 rolls around. These people seem to simply want the adrenaline rush that comes with fear, without having to deal with the nuts and bolts of loss that those who lost loved ones that day deal with every day of their lives.

Six years after the 9/11 attacks, with the United States Constitution in ruins and the country hopelessly in debt paying for a war against people who had nothing to do with the attacks, a war in which we are hopelessly mired, little has been accomplished, for all the talk coming from the president and the PNAC minions in his administration. In the six months after the attacks, George Bush went from "We'll smoke him out of his cave" to this:

...to having his advisers taunt Osama about his manhood, thus proving that out there in Lesser Wingnuttia, it really IS all about the schlong.

Do the 9/11 families at least feel any safer six years after the loss of their loved ones? Hardly. 45% feel no safer, and another 30% feel only somewhat safe. And what do the families think about the feargasm that's going to characterize today's coverage? Is it a comfort to them, to know that the media will make sure Americans don't forget what happened six years ago today? Again, hardly. When asked if media coverage triggers a grief response, 71% agree or strongly agree.

No doubt we'll once again hear the usual suspects today accusing liberals of "forgetting 9/11." As if the endless war in Iraq, the fact that if you have problems finding a parking space in lower Manhattan it now constitutes suspicious behavior, endless security lines at airports, wondering if the government is tapping your phone and monitoring your web searches, and the relentless drumbeat of fear fear fear coming from the mainstream news media would let you forget. As if George W. Bush's BFF Osama Bin Laden doesn't come out from his bunker in the White House Basement right on time to deliver a nice syringe full o'fear right into the collective national vein. And after the hue and cry of this national day of Making Sure Americans Stay Good and Scared is over, perhaps Americans might think about why, if this president is so tough on terror, Al Qaeda is as strong as ever and Bin Laden is out there free to help his buddy George W. Bush make Americans dance to the tune of their mutual dance of death.


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