Karen Remmler on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

Monday, August 22, 2011 - 16:45

Next month the country will observe the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States with the opening of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. As the anniversary approaches, Questioning Authority talked with MHC Professor of German Studies, Critical Social Thought, and Gender Studies Karen Remmler. Remmler, who becomes director of the Five College Women's Studies Research Center this fall, is an expert on remembrance of the Holocaust, memorials, and burials, as well as the transnational politics of memory.

QA: After a decade, there will soon be a memorial on the site of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City. Why are memorials so important to us as a country after a tragedy? Are there reasons we should establish them quickly, or should we allow a passage of time before we decide how we will memorialize an event?

Karen Remmler: The delay in the building of the memorial was actually not as long as one might expect. Given the magnitude of the event and the multiple constituencies involved in the process of rebuilding (Port Authority, property owners, planners, architects, families of victims, to name a few), ten years actually seems quite short. This process of planning a memorial is an extremely valuable social and political act, because it gives people an opportunity to express their emotions in interaction with others, rather than fall into despair.

Time is necessary not just for emotional reasons. Even as we focus on the symbolic meaning of the memorial, we should also face the harder facts of the political meaning and commercial value of the site. The Memorial Plaza is part of a larger complex of reconstruction in and around Ground Zero that includes One World Trade Center, which will be the highest building in the country.

Who gets to decide in the end? The 9/11 memorial is the result of a complicated and highly participatory process, much of which included debates and clashes between and among the families of the victims and members of the development project. In fact, at one point in 2002, 5,000 people gathered in a citizen’s forum at the Javits Center in Manhattan to discuss their views about the function and design of the site.

At the same time, the recuperation of the nation after the blow of the attacks on 9/11 requires a collective experience to bring catharsis. If we compare this process with other incidents, not just in the United States, but also in other nations that have experienced atrocities of a similar magnitude, it is astounding that the process happened at such relative speed.

QA: Are there particular features in the design of a national memorial that are helpful in the healing process, or needs that should be addressed in the design of a memorial – and particularly in this memorial? Will it have elements in common with the memorials honoring the victims who died at the Pentagon and in Shanksville?

KR: For some, the traumatic experience of losing a loved one to an attack so unfathomable leads to a period of despair. The memorial is a counterpoint to the despair because it creates a common, yet individualized space for remembering the dead in a dignified and often emotionally charged manner. Marking the location of the attack as sacred ground is itself quite universal, though this may seem contradictory in that the al Qaeda terrorists chose this location. We should not forget that many local memorials exist throughout the country and around the world to commemorate those killed in the 9/11 attacks, in addition to the three major memorials in New York, at the Pentagon, and on the field at Shanksville where Flight 93 crashed.

The memorials share a sense of sacredness and incorporate elements that respect the individuality of each victim by including their names. Recording the names of the dead retains their memories as individuals, not just numbered fatalities. At the Pentagon, the cantilevered benches that comprise the memorial each bear the name of one of the people who died there and are arranged over a pool of lighted water. The memorial at Ground Zero similarly incorporates water--falling water, as a symbol of the continued flow of attachment to the dead and of the resilience of the living. Artificial waterfalls or reflecting pools are common elements in many war memorials to create a sense of peace and contemplation. In Shanksville, the memorial is still under construction. The actual site of impact of Flight 93 will be protected and has been designated “Sacred Ground” to be accessible only to family members of the dead. It also includes a wall of names to commemorate the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

It may seem ironic that an attack based on supposed religious ideology, but far removed from actual religious practice, creates a sacred space or designated hallowed ground. There is a deep-seated belief that the location of violent death absorbs the lives of the dead. Think of the common practice of marking the locations of car accidents with crosses and other forms of religious icons. Or the preservation of concentration camps.

QA: There has been some disagreement over what will be incorporated into the 9/11 memorial site and museum, including the remains of the victims, some of their personal belongings, and recordings of cell phone messages. How can we balance the rights and privacy of the families with the public's desire to have these artifacts be part of the public memorial? Who decides whose interest takes precedent?

KR: Controversies remain. The memorial site will house the remains of many of the as-yet unidentified victims of the attacks in a repository there. Some of the loved ones are upset by the notion that the remains will be placed so close to the more public space of the museum. They have drawn comparisons with the display of Native American remains in museums, for example. Thus, we can raise the questions: Who owns the dead? What do they represent ten years later? There is a tradition of housing remains in public spaces, including bones in ossuaries, such as those at Douaumont in France, that serve to commemorate the dead soldiers in WWI. What makes the remains of 9/11 victims distinct, however, is the intention to keep them accessible to forensic scientists in the hope of identifying them once DNA testing becomes even more sophisticated. The need to name the remains of the dead is deeply embedded in many cultures and of particular urgency in the aftermath of atrocity, as we have seen in the attempts by the families in postdictatorship Argentina or Chile to keep the memory of the disappeared alive.

As for the other items, one can go to YouTube to hear the last words of a number of victims, so their privacy is nonexistent. The commission charged with building the museum and the memorial has made a great effort to respect the wishes of the families. The families themselves, however, are not always in agreement, so the process is quite complicated. The families were invited by the architect of the memorial, Michael Arad, to choose “meaningful adjacencies” of their loved one. The name of a father who was killed in the attack on the towers will be placed next to the name of his daughter’s close friend who perished in one of the planes, for example. The adjacencies, in part computer generated based on the wishes of the families and friends, indicate the need to create community even among the dead. At the same time, the commemorative process lends respect to the dead and memorializes them not just for their families, but for the larger public. Ideally, the many victims, who include citizens from dozens of other countries, will be remembered not just by nationality, but as part of a global sense of the need to work against nonstate terrorism multilaterally. After all, the dead don’t vote, they don’t pledge allegiance, and they don’t engage in nationalist tirades.

The memorial museum serves multiple purposes and will historicize the event, write it into a collective history that serves to establish national identity, priorities, and myths. I doubt, however, that a memorial can assuage everyone’s pain, even as it creates a space for remembering the dead.

QA: Why are the remains important to us as a society? Do they play a role in the mourning process? Do they represent something culturally or politically for us as a nation or on the world stage?

KR: In the aftermath of violent death, remains are extremely important for giving the living an opportunity to take leave of their dead. Even science cannot account for the attachment to the remains of the dead, even though, on a rational level, the remains are simply biological material. But deep religious or spiritual beliefs are very powerful in creating an attachment to the remains, particularly when one has not been able to accompany a dying individual to her death. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the wake of an attack like 9/11, and in light of an anxiety about vulnerability as a nation, popular culture is full of manifestations of ghost stories, the return of the dead, and parallel universes. There is so much unresolved mourning in the aftermath of atrocity because the shock of loss itself becomes woven into the national narrative of identity and a sense of helplessness. The presence of the dead in cultural manifestations attests to the pain over their absence. The dead are also evidence of a crime, so tainted in some way by their mingling with the remains of the attackers, and, thus the mourning process represents, too, the demarcation of victim and perpetrator.

Once wounded by the attack, the United States under former President Bush chose to reestablish its position of strength as a nation through a rhetoric of retaliation, a move that has had devastating results in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as reestablishing national strength seems to require strong actions, the process of rebuilding can also deepen the very values attacked by the terrorists, rather than diminish them. In the recent attack in Norway, the measured, compassionate response of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg urged Norwegians to remain steadfastly committed to an open society and to supporting one another and others through love and humanity. Thus, moving forward does not mean forgetting or lashing out, even as these may seem understandable.

QA: Americans have many memorials to the dead, be they from wars or events such as 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing. Is this the case in other cultures?

KR: Archeologists would have difficulty establishing the histories of ancient or contemporary cultures without access to the burial grounds, tombs, and artifacts associated with remembering the dead. So, yes, other cultures, both past and present, place much emphasis on marking events such as wars or atrocities. I have visited a number of countries to research the expression of grief in national memorials or, conversely, in less conspicuous forms, such as private shrines, memoirs, and subversive spaces. Nagasaki and Hiroshima, for example, or Santiago, Chile, or Phnom Penh, Cambodia, mark atrocities through public monuments and museums that convey a particular national interpretation of the event. At the same time, makeshift markers--created in some cases under danger of reprisal or removal--remind us that the delay in memorialization is not just a function of emotional duress or grief, but of deliberate political repression. National memorials are meant to shape public consciousness about past events and about their impact on the present and future of nations, and they are almost always controversial because they do not always coincide with the needs or emotions of individual citizens.