When horrible things happen, we mark them. It's a kind of multipurpose mourning behavior that serves partly to honor victims, partly to remind ourselves that we are mortal, too, and partly, maybe, to stand as a lesson of sorts, or even as a way of convincing ourselves those things won't happen again. When horrible things happen on the scale at which September 11 did, with thousands killed as planes crashed into the Pentagon, into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and, in the pictures seen around the world, into the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center, those mourning habits are writ large and even commoditized—Never Forget signs hanging in windows, American flags lifted in remembrance, the images and the tributes and memorials and flowers and even, eventually, the purchasable souvenirs.
Back in September of '01, as searches went on for survivors in a city that was suddenly synonymous with ash and fear, there were other signs, pictures of the missing, in particular, that were anything but commoditized and instead deeply personal and heart-rending. But as a society we moved from those individualized signs of loss crafted in urgency to the yearly remembrances as formal ceremonies, to tributes with celebrity guests and musical accompaniment, to big-business memorials, and, of course, to the business of healing and growing, as exampled by the new World Trade Center Tower, scheduled for completion in 2014.
We've changed a lot in the decade-plus that's ensued since nearly 3,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001, and the world became forever different.
Now, "for the first time in a decade, the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars that resulted are not the focus of the presidential election," reports the Associated Press. (The bipartisan stance is, let's not be negative for a day.) Vivian Yee, writing in the New York Times, explains that "after the commemorations reached a peak of sorts for last year’s 10th anniversary, a sprinkling of communities have decided to scale back — prompted, they say, by a growing feeling that it may be time to move on." Also via the A.P., "The reading of nearly 3,000 victims' names in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania continued as usual this year to remember those killed in the worst terror attack in U.S. history. But many felt it was time to move forward after the emotional turning point of last year's 10th anniversary." Yee also quotes Brad Jordan, council chair of the Glen Rock Assistance Council and Endowment of New Jersey, a town that lost 11 residents and won't hold a formal ceremony this year in favor of instead focusing on private reflection. He told her, "We were getting a distinct sense that [residents] were moving past the need to continue to institutionalize that commemoration of loss.”
Our mourning, then, is different this year, though in fairness it's a bit different every year. It's particularly poignant to me that some of those children who lost their parents that day are now grownups; others, babies at the time, are teens. Time moves on. While there is still sadness, it's not quite so sharp, and perhaps most astounding-yet-obvious, many of us weren't even here to experience that sadness first-hand at all. In some ways the nation we were back then seems hardly recognizable. The appearance of that new tower in place of the recent emptiness when you look at the skyline is surprising and heartening, and soon that emptiness won't even be so recent. It all seems to be a sign of survival, that we can and will get over these old wounds.
The ceremonies are smaller, and it's fair to say, so is the sense of catastrophic societal grief. Not that we don't still feel it—and especially for those who lost loved ones, it's an unimaginable heartache they must deal with daily—but it's understandable that the initial terror and shock and early paralysis that those feelings brought would have by now shifted and morphed in order to allow us to, well, survive. At the same time, of course, we don't forget, we don't need posters reminding us not to to feel uncomfortable at the sight of the special-effects-driven destruction of Manhattan for cinematic box-office success, or to suddenly flash right back to those days of post-9/11 panic when we see a group of police officers clustered in the subway or hear of another possible terrorist threat. Yet the concept of New York City being attacked is something we've grown somewhat accustomed to having lived under that premise for so many years now; it's no longer top of mind or present in our every waking moment. It's unclear whether this particular type of numbness, or being, simply "used to it"—after all, if we feel fear or change our lives, as the saying goes, the terrorists have won—is bad or good. Maybe it's just survival. As for those organizations that continue to recycle old shots and video of the World Trade Center towers falling, I think we've gotten to a point that that is a clear disservice. Those shots, once brutal to look at, have begun to act as background noise more than anything else, which probably means it's time to retire them.
Yet each of us, whether we were living in New York City or elsewhere, likely has a visceral, potent memory of where we were that morning—what we were doing, how the sky looked, what the air felt like, the calm and mundane everydayness that proceeded that sudden, unexpected panic. Following the panic came the general sense of terror, loss, and pain, the post-traumatic stress to an entire city and beyond, and the ways with which we tried to deal with all that. Today, we look up at the clear blue sky and channel those feelings again, or over the weekend we noticed the twin lights emerging upward in the dark from downtown Manhattan and felt a lump in our throats and thought, Oh yes, it's that time of year again. No longer a part of our everyday—it hasn't been for years—we remember in that moment those awful days, and then we move on.
Life goes on, as they say. Richard M. Weinberg, a [National Cathedral] spokesman, told the New York Times of 9/11: “I think it’s fair to say that 11 years later, we all felt that it was important still to commemorate it, but to do so in perhaps a less overt, a less somber way — to do so maturely and look forward.” The 10th anniversary is a big one, with lots of buildup, as Jane Pollicino, whose husband was killed at the World Trade Center, told the A.P. There's some relief to have reached "another anniversary that we can commemorate in a calmer way, without that 10-year pressure," she said.
On September 11, 2001, Randy Scott wrote on a piece of paper, "84th floor West Office 12 people trapped." He was working in the World Trade Center that day. Marked with a dark spot of Randy's blood, and thereby his DNA, the note traveled down from the Tower and into the street, and was salvaged, kept first by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where it had been handed to a guard, until it was given to the September 11 Memorial & Museum. It took 10 years to connect the note to Randy. In August of 2011, his family was informed that the note had been his, and that he hadn't died instantly, as they'd believed. Scott's wife Denise explained to the Stamford Advocate, "You don't want them to suffer. They're trapped in a burning building. It's just an unspeakable horror. And then you get this 10 years later. It just changes everything."
Even a commoditized "Never forget" is a way of adding life to the memories of the people we lost and the way we felt, recognizing the history and the impact of what happened. Of course, people like the Scotts don't need a stock phrase on a sign or a clip of the Trade Center to keep from forgetting. The rest of us will inevitably continue to remember September 11 a little bit differently, a bit less intensely and with an ever-decreasing need for the formalized accounting of the grief, as time goes on. After all, we're human; we do move on. But as we talk of moving on and scaling back we should remember that there are plenty of people for whom, since that day in 2001, some things are forever unchanged.