In mid-August, I had just curled up with the remote for an hour of TV-relaxation when a strange image appeared on the screen. A golden coin, perhaps the size of a Susan B. Anthony, gently floated into view to the tune of a gentle yet masculine voice. On the face of the coin stood a cluster of silver buildings, the most recognizable of them being the Twin Towers. As I watched, they gently rose from the coin’s base, an eerie resurrection that smacked of religious imagery and the kind of trick that one might be familiar with from a child’s pop-up book. “Get your World Trade Center commemorative coin today!” the man’s voice was saying. “A historic two-piece memorial that transforms into a standing sculpture! A percentage to go to victims’ families! Made from the debris found in a bank vault from Ground Zero!”
As a New Yorker and a generally sane and conscientious citizen, I have to ask, what exactly is going on here? Five years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, have we so lost track of what to memorialize about Sept. 11 and how to do it that some of us must look for answers in a commemorative object that emphasizes lost buildings over lost lives? And more to the point — as I’m sure that most readers, just as I have, are scoffing at the coin’s vulgarity and insisting that they never would buy such a thing — what exactly are we looking to commemorate when we attend one of the many memorial services that will be held across the country today?
None of us needs to be told again that Sept. 11 has been transformed by fear and politics into a symbol of the American Way versus The Terrorists, of good and truth versus ignorance and dogma. For a moment, let’s strip away all the exploitative rhetoric and try to figure out exactly who has a right to commemorate Sept. 11 at all, and what they’re remembering when they do.
Five years later, the day has three levels of principal mourners. The most general includes all American citizens; as far as the often-exploited idea of an attack on our own soil goes, everyone, even those whose lives were never directly affected by the attacks, should be allowed to remember and mourn it as such.
The second group is reserved for New Yorkers. None of us needs a special-edition coin to remind us of what happened to our city, especially when a gaping hole remains at Ground Zero and plan after plan for the Freedom Towers has been proposed and scrapped.
But the true mourners of the day are the families of the attack’s victims. When we try to paint Sept. 11 as a tragedy shared equally by all American citizens, when Oliver Stone releases a film to bank on our society’s rubbernecking voyeurism and when President Bush invites victims’ relatives to serve as yes-men at a press conference on the terror suspects transferred to Guantanamo Bay, we deny the true sufferers the right to private, non-political grief. When any of us attends a memorial service today, whether it be on this campus or across the country, the best we can do is stop our search for the greater meaning behind Sept. 11 and empathize with those relatives and friends who must at once remember their dead and endure the onslaught of manipulation, both political and commercial, that would co-opt their personal tragedy.
Anyone seeking to commemorate Sept. 11 purely as an assault on American freedoms and our way of life needs instead to examine more recent history. Everybody knows that it is the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, but who will choose to remember these early weeks of September as the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina? Sept. 11 revealed our external enemies, but Katrina revealed the enemy ingrained in our own society’s structure. Devoid of any uplifting message of solidarity or perseverance, a memorial coin of the Astrodome, that ironic image of prosperity and modern life filled to the brim with Louisiana’s dead and dying, might not achieve the same popularity as the World Trade Center coin. If Americans are looking for a collective tragedy to examine and learn from, we must look no further than Katrina, which, far more than Sept. 11, exposed beyond any question our nation’s faults and showed us how much more we need to do before we can exist as a truly safe and free society.
Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College.