The focus of the ceremonial eulogies is on the way loved ones lived, for the most part, not on how they died. The commemoration was characterized by the solemnity due a newly marked grave. A pair of readers, family members chosen by lottery, standing behind two podiums took turns reciting names, ending with a tribute to their loved one. Usually brief, said in the composed dull ache of sadness, sometimes pierced by the sharp sting of grief. A Muslim woman, Talat Hamdani, who lost her son, “my breath, my life,” hails his heroism in the name of democratic values including, pointedly, freedom of religion (3:48).[open endnotes in new window]
The “update” of a birth or death in the family delivered to the loved one seeks to inscribe the departed in the continuity of family life. But the eulogy also frames him as a national hero. As a Muslim woman, one whose disappeared son was investigated by law enforcement on suspicion of terrorism, in part because he was born in Pakistan, it is significant that she positions him in the larger framework of “America’s young Jedi”. A key function of the commemoration is to define the community that was attacked, to characterize what it means to be an American—“[to die] defending…American values”. She does so in eloquent terms, but even awkward deliveries are suffused with pathos.
A man, holding a flag, eyes cast down, loses his voice momentarily when he names his brother, only to resume speaking in a gravelly voice. “It’s ten years, but it’s still not easy.” (3:21). The inadequacy of words to convey his feelings, even when reading from a scripted micro-eulogy, allows his silence to speak. Sometimes the weight of the loss is conveyed by its atypicality, as with the woman who lost not one, but two people at the site—a daughter and a husband (3:10). Even cliché-ridden tributes, delivered in emotionally saturated ways or with studied restraint, cut through the hardened layers of critical distance and the distance of time. A young police officer, holding up her father’s photo, relies on clichés to deliver a stirring tribute to her fire fighter dad.
The grief of family members is contagious, and the hours-long stream of names carries a cumulative emotional impact. It is evident that many of them are still haunted by the memory of how their loved one died.
The magnitude of the loss is evident in the numbers and the diversity of the dead. Various ethnicities are represented and tributes include sprinkles of phrases in Spanish, Italian, Thai, and Hebrew. There is also an occasional dissident voice. One man who lost his daughter explicitly blames “radical Islamists” (4:55). A woman who lost her husband uncharacteristically takes 1 min. 12 sec. to speak of “those who were murdered,” “the horror that happened here 10 years ago,” and unabated pain. “Ten years and we’re still without satisfactory answers to what went on this day, and how this event could have happened to our great nation, leaving a void for so many families.” (4:14) This eulogy stands out from the characteristic distillation of human loss by couching the plaint in a protest.
The reading of the names rang true as an expression of grief, as an expression of memory, and as a testament to the immense loss. It echoed key moments of “the 9/11 visual canon”—the missing posters, and the NY Times “Portraits of Grief”, with their capsule summaries of a life. (Hutchings, 213)
The repeated references to 9/11 as a defining moment, a day that changed everything, explicitly by anchors, implicitly by family members, refers to the transformative power of trauma. (Cetinic, 290) The event traumatized the nation and razed or damaged iconic landmarks. It is in this vein that the rise of the Freedom Tower, prominent in the hour-long programs that preceded the ceremony, signifies recovery. The silent pools simultaneously represent the stunned silence of trauma and the ability to stop speaking about it that marks healing.
But the proclivity of anchors to refer to the security concerns surrounding the anniversary, not only resituated 9/11 in the official war on terror framework, but also complicated the closure to which the hosts referred. There is a tendency in the anniversary coverage to conflate the collective “grief” precipitated largely by the fear invoked by security threats, with the reiterative personal grief of the family members of the 9/11 dead. The defining moment that the sudden death of a loved one represents for grieving family members is conflated with the defining moment that 9/11 represents for most Americans in the threat of terrorism and living with the strictures of the ongoing security apparatus.
The documentaries trade more than the other programs in recalling the horror of the sheer magnitude of the terrorist attack. Collective memory of the attack is intensified by public sympathy for those who died, but ultimately rests on both a personal and collective sense of threat. The documentaries grapple with trauma, embrace the horror of the event, defining it as a moment of failure, and recall the collective social memory of helplessness, terror, and loss. They replay the haunting images of collapsing skyscrapers, debris clouds, and a manqué skyline. Sporadic images of people falling, the only visible evidence of the suffering that preceded death, serve as a synecdoche for the suffering in the buildings and planes. Sustained images of the towers collapsing and disintegrating stand in for images of the human wreckage contained therein. They function as a proxy for the larger nightmare unobserved by the media, possibly even invoking the destruction and loss of life caused by the subsequent ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Commemoration revisits the site of injury. It simultaneously reopens the wound and allows the viewer to process it from the vantage point of ten years passed. Whether these programs succeed in allowing viewers “to bear witness to trauma” without re-traumatizing themselves is unclear. (Prince, 12-13) Anniversary events amplify memory and loss, so the draw to participate in this collective remembering is complex and rooted in collective memory, motivated by a desire to bear witness to atrocity, to honor the lost, and perhaps to find closure—not the absence of ambiguity but the strength to live with uncertainty and loss. (Carlin and Park-Fuller, 33) The danger of the media frames lies in reducing the collective trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath to the level of the individual when the scope of the attack, from intent to abiding consequences, and the commemorative process are so decisively social.