The Bushes and the Obamas at the National September 11 Memorial in New York on Sunday. (Robert Deutsch-Pool/Getty Images)

The Greeks, who knew something about theater, would have appreciated the dramatic potential of 9/11’s 10th anniversary. Aristotle believed that an audience’s identification with the men that fate had cast as playthings for the gods would produce an emotional catharsis, or “closure” in today’s psycho-babble. We often heard such talk—the anniversary would be a renewal, a restoration, even a revival—in the run-up to Sunday’s commemoration events.

The days of remembrance, particularly in Washington and New York, did prompt a flood of documentaries, interviews, talk shows, newspaper and magazine articles, and books. It was difficult to escape the Sept. 11 anniversary on television last week. The Week counted no fewer than 40 Sept. 11 television specials in the month leading up to the opening of the memorial at ground zero on Sunday—everything from Animal Planet’s Hero Dogs of 9/11, to the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Twins of the Twin Towers, about twins who lost a sister or brother on that fateful day.

Some critics warned that the excessive programming would be overkill, so to speak, that all these hours of TV would trivialize the occasion. They need not have worried. The interviews and new material disclosed helped illuminate an event that many Americans with no familial or geographical connection had stopped thinking about long ago.

But this theater of the unfathomable will not trigger the catharsis the Greeks might have imagined. Nor will it provide the national clarity that makes it possible to “move on.” For despite the week’s rhetoric about American unity, the country remains bitterly divided about the meaning of the Sept. 11 attacks and the decade they helped spawn.


Commemoration is not a particularly American art form. While commemorations abound in Europe, particularly in Russia and Germany, which have endured and inflicted great suffering, in the United States people tend to focus on joyous occasions. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving reflect the optimism of a buoyant, relatively young country. And while Americans commemorate Memorial Day, they have no designated national ceremony for the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.

Sept. 11 changed that. Each year since the attack, the families of the 2,983 victims have gathered, many of them near the spot where the towers once stood, to read aloud the names of those who perished there. Bells have tolled, and mourners have held moments of silence.

The spare style and content of this year’s gathering in New York was consistent with those earlier gatherings. The ceremony was conscientiously solemn, simple, and apolitical, yet it emerged from painstaking negotiations between the families of the victims—often deeply divided themselves—and the mayor’s office. There were no religious figures on the program to articulate or interpret the families’ sense of loss and grief; the bereaved insisted on doing that for themselves. Nor were self-serving politicians permitted to give speeches hoping to score political points with constituents.

In the weeks before the anniversary, there was pressure to rewrite the commemoration drama. Politicians and officials who had heretofore been excluded clamored for speaking roles. Some conservative pundits demanded that religious leaders be included in the program. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg held firm. After an ugly battle last year over whether a mosque should be built in lower Manhattan, he wisely resisted politicizing the ceremony by raising the divisive issue over whether to include a Muslim cleric among the religious representatives.

In the end, a few more officials and politicians were included in the program. But all of them—including President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush—read letters, poems, or scripture. Obama read Psalm 46 for its message of perseverance, his spokesman said. Bush, who was cheered by the crowd, read an eloquent condolence letter that President Abraham Lincoln had sent to a mother who had lost five sons in the Civil War. The presidents and their wives stood solemnly side-by-side behind protective bullet-proof glass. (They left part-way through the reading of the victims’ names, under the cover of Yo-Yo Ma’s incomparable cello.)

The mayor, unprotected by a Plexiglas shield, was the event’s true master of ceremonies. “In all of the years,” he said, “we have shared both words and silences.” He lingered even after the reading of the names to greet families, many of whom he had come to know.

The families were the true stars of Sunday’s commemoration—the brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, and other relatives of those whose only crime was going to work that day, or rushing into the burning towers to save people they did not know. Relatives of the victims, from over 80 countries, included members of almost every nationality and religion, a microcosm of the city itself. They stood patiently beneath the podium in the sun, waiting for their loved one’s name to be called out—to be rescued, one by one, from the anonymity of having been killed in a mass attack.

Nancy Novaro, 52, of Mastic Beach, Long Island, said she came to the ceremony every year. “It still hurts,” she said, despite the passage of a decade. Her sister-in-law, Catherine LoGuidice, a 30-year-old broker, had worked on the 105th floor of the North Tower. Did it help to know that Osama Bin Laden was dead? “Who cares about him?” Ms. Novaro replied. “We’re here; he’s not. He can’t scare us. I’m a true New Yorker. They won’t take us down. We’ll always rebuild.”

Despite complaints about bureaucratic delays, cost overruns, and a general lack of urgency, the reconstruction of the site is now well under way. A giant American flag adorned the façade of 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, now some 80 stories tall. And for the first time, the families got to see their loved one’s names inscribed in the bronze panels of the National September 11 Memorial, which also opened Sunday. Many used crayons and pencils to trace a name onto paper. Others just touched their relative’s name or left a memento on the panel—a photo, a ballet slipper, a fireman’s helmet. Still others stared silently into the twin reflecting pools, listening to the sound of the memorial’s giant, gushing waterfalls.

A grove of oak trees lines the memorial, along with one very special tree, a Callery pear tree that survived the devastation 10 years ago. Nearly dead when its badly burned root was pulled from the towers’ smoldering wreckage, the so-called survivor tree was struck by lightning two years ago and replanted at the site after being nursed back to life a second time.


Two days before the Sept. 11 commemoration, I attended another ceremony for the 23 New York Police Department officers who died at the towers. That toll turned out to be only the beginning of the department’s losses: In the weeks and months after, 50 more died from illnesses caused by exposure to the site. At the ceremony at Lincoln Center, Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly honored these victims beneath a screen featuring the NYPD’s motto, Faithful Unto Death.

The first responders, most lacking masks or respirators, had dug through rubble, many for days, trying to find survivors. Later, they worked to recover their fallen comrades and other victims. Inhaling toxic smoke, dust, and debris, and the scent of burnt flesh, they developed rare cancers and other fatal illnesses. Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York, told the 1,700 policemen, families, and guests assembled in Avery Fisher Hall that a police supervisor at a rescue center had given the cardinal his own mask, warning him that breathing in the towers’ dust and debris might be lethal. Egan had asked the officer where his own mask was. He needed to see everything and everyone in the area clearly, the supervisor had replied, and the mask obstructed his vision.

But getting compensation for the sickened police and dying first responders has been inexcusably difficult. Congress stonewalled, resisting granting any assistance for years. At the end of last year, the legislators were finally shamed by the public and the press into passing the Zadroga Act, which enables the sick or relatives of those who fell ill in a now expanded “dust zone” to apply for compensation. Inexplicably, however, those suffering from cancer have been excluded.


Despite the mayor’s efforts to keep politics out of the ceremony, politics have dominated discussions of how Sept. 11 should be remembered. While there was one ceremony at ground zero on Sunday, almost unbearable in its sadness, two competing narratives of the event and its aftermath have emerged.

One depicts the United States as the largely innocent victim of an evil, unspeakably barbaric foe hell-bent on destroying the nation. In this version of events, America is a country of courage and resilience, one that sought justice rather than vengeance. While bolstering security at home and abroad, the United States remained faithful to its core principles of the rule of law, freedom, equality, and tolerance, despite some stumbles. This version was articulated Sunday by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spoke at the commemoration at the Pentagon, where 125 civilians and military officers perished. The attacks enhanced American patriotism, he said, its people’s belief in one another, and their faith in their country. “They could kill our citizens,” he said, but “they could not kill our citizenship.”

The other, darker narrative, one favored by critics of American foreign policy, is that the United States somehow had it coming. Staunch U.S. support for Middle Eastern autocrats and Israel’s occupation of Palestinians had enraged young Muslims, who finally struck back at American symbols of power and wealth. The Bush Administration exploited the attack to unleash a decade of war and financial recklessness that has weakened the nation and helped its foes. The “sanitizing of 9/11 and the falsification of its genesis to jump-start a second war” in Iraq wound up “muddying and corrupting the memory of the event,” wrote Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist, in an essay for New York magazine.

An even harsher assessment came from New York Times columnist and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. Krugman wrote Sunday on his blog that the anniversary had become a marker of “shame” for America. Assailing Bush and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as “fake heroes,” he accused them of exploiting the attacks for their own personal and political gain. Many journalists, too, had lent “their support to the hijacking of the atrocity.” As a result, the memory of Sept. 11, he wrote, has been irrevocably “poisoned,” an “occasion for shame.”

In response to widespread outrage over his post, Krugman posted a second commentary on Monday. Reiterating his basic theme, he called the first two years following the attacks a “time of political exploitation and intimidation” for America that had culminated in the “deliberate misleading of the nation into the invasion of Iraq.”

He should also have written, Krugman added Monday, that Americans “behaved remarkably well in the weeks and months after 9/11.” There had been “very little panic, and much more tolerance than one might have feared,” he wrote. But he could neither “forget nor forgive” how the memory of the atrocity had been hijacked. Some readers could neither forget nor forgive Krugman for attempting to politicize a national commemoration in honor of innocent people who had died.