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2007 v 35


As 9/11 Draws Near, a Debate Rises: How Much Tribute Is Enough?

Published: September 2, 200

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.

For the first time this year at ground zero, the main ceremony will not be at the trade center site. Because of construction, the families will be allowed to pass onto the ground only momentarily, but the ceremony will be shifted to nearby Zuccotti Park, at Broadway and Liberty Street — its moving on somewhat of a metaphor for the feelings of those who favor change.

Sept. 11, of course, remains complicated by its unfinished contours — continuing worry over terrorism, the war in Iraq, a presidential race in which candidates repeatedly invoke the day and its portents. Episodes like the fire at the vacant Deutsche Bank building stir up haunting memories. Books rooted in the attack continue to arrive.

Some people are troubled by what they see as others’ taking advantage of the event. “Six years later, we can see that a lot of people have used 9/11 for some gain,” said Matt Brosseau, 27, of Westfield, N.J. He sees the public tributes as “crassly corporatized and co-opted by false patriots.”

“Me personally, I wouldn’t involve myself in a public commemoration,” he said. “I don’t see the need for an official remembrance from the city or anyone else. In six years, is Minneapolis going to pay for something for the people who died in the bridge collapse?”

David Hendrickson, 56, a computer software trainer who lives in Manhattan, said he began being somewhat irritated by the attention to the commemoration on the third anniversary. “It seems a little much to me to still be talking about this six years later,” he said. “I understand it’s a sad thing. I understand it’s a tragedy. I’ve had my own share of tragedies — my uncle was killed in a tornado. But you get on. I have the sense that some people are living on their victimhood, which I find a little tiring.”

Mental health practitioners see a certain value in the growing fatigue.

“It’s a good sign when people don’t need an anniversary commemoration or demarcation,” said Charles R. Figley, the director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute. “And it’s not disrespectful to those who died.”

Laurie Pearlman, a clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, said, “Our society has a very low tolerance for grief — it’s exhausting and unrelenting, and we don’t want to hear about it.”

Some of the relatives of those who died that day hold fast to the anniversary and are the most insistent that it not be dismantled.

“I would no sooner tell survivors of the Holocaust how to mourn or how to commemorate their atrocity, so why do others feel they have any right to dictate how family members should feel or memorialize our loved ones on Sept. 11 or any day, for that matter?” said Nancy Nee, whose brother George Cain died in the attack. “Six years feels like the blink of an eye. That number means nothing to me.”

Ms. Korsonsky has not attended any of the ceremonies at ground zero, but she has watched them on television. “I always have a lot of friends who watch it and then call me and tell me they listened for my sister’s name. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. She’s remembered for that one instant. I’m just so afraid that she’ll be forgotten.”

But even family members diverge over what should or should not happen on this anniversary of death.

Lesli Rice, 26, who works in insurance and lost her mother, Eileen Rice, on Sept. 11, thinks something respectful should occur on the anniversary — a tolling of church bells or a moment of silence — but that otherwise the event should be scaled back. “The grieving part has to be more personal,” she said. “The whole city wasn’t affected by my mother’s death.”

A hairdresser’s question told Nikki Stern something about her own sensibilities. Ms. Stern lost her husband, James Potorti, in the collapsing towers. Two years ago, her hairdresser mentioned that she was planning to marry on Sept. 11. It was a Sunday, a day that worked best for all involved. She was grasping for guidance: Was that all right?

Ms. Stern suggested that if it was the most convenient day, fine, but perhaps a portion of the wedding gifts could go to some charity.

“I thought that it was completely cool,” she said. “The last thing my husband would have wanted was for everyone to lie down and die.”

“I still get so many letters from people that even I suffer from 9/11 fatigue to some extent,” she said. “People who don’t want to do anything on 9/11, they shouldn’t be forced to. I never thought I’d say that.”

Part of the problem with remembrances is that people are unsure what is expected of them, said Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “People wonder, ‘How sad am I supposed to feel? What do you expect me to do, because possibly I’ve gotten over it,’ ” she said. “We have to figure out how to commemorate other people’s grief. It’s a generic question we haven’t answered that goes beyond 9/11.”

An organization called was begun last year to urge people to do something nice for Sept. 11, and, if they want, to post it on its Web site. “We asked what should 9/11 be 20 or 30 years from now, and the big concern is that people will become tired of conventional ceremonies,” said David Paine, president of the organization.

Some 150,000 deeds were posted last year, with more than 40,000 intentions clocked so far this year. One person chose to put quarters in expired parking meters. Another is knitting socks for soldiers. A boy said he would help his mother around the house and not torment his siblings.

Where you were, your proximity to the attack — these things shade your tie to the anniversary. On Sept. 11, Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, was crossing Washington Square in Greenwich Village and was approached by a panhandler, whom he brushed off. The panhandler then said, “The World Trade Center is on fire.”

Dr. Zimmerman didn’t even look. Not until he got to his office did he find out it was truth. “I now pay more attention to what homeless people say,” he said.

Dr. Zimmerman knows that the N.Y.U. dynamic is now different, the undergraduates who were there during the attack gone, supplanted largely by students who did not see it and whose feelings are thus likely to be more varied.

“I’m quite troubled about all this talk of 9/11 fatigue,” he said. “It’s true that commemorations can take on bombastic and ritualistic forms that trivialize them, but 9/11 is with us every day. Every political issue in our times is refracted through this event. I can understand why some people are sick of hearing about it, but they should get used to it.”

It seems likely that attention to the anniversary will ebb and flow. Events become artificially magnified during 10-year, 25-year, 50-year demarcations.

What might happen on Sept. 11 a hundred years from now? “It’s conceivable that it could be virtually forgotten,” said Dr. Bodnar, the history professor. “Does anyone go out on the streets of New York and commemorate the firing on Fort Sumter?”