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10 September 2021

What do we remember when we remember 9/11?

Our remembrance of 9/11 is about the greatness of America; in the process, it fails Americans.

By Emily Tamkin

Our remembrance of 9/11 is about the greatness of America; in the process, it fails Americans.   

Those who are old enough will recall where they were on September 11 2001. I was on a school trip to a beach, and confused about what was happening. If, like me, you grew up in or near New York, the days following the attacks on the World Trade towers were ones in which we learned whose family members returned home safely, and whose were never coming home.   

Then came the flag-waving. I wrote a poem about the seeming lack of American patriotism before the attacks happened. I was 11, and afraid, and was caught up in nationalist fervour. My teacher praised my efforts, probably because she was caught up in it, too.   

The chest-thumping nationalism and frat-boy-like chants of “USA! USA!” may have offered collective release from all the shock and anger. But it also meant that some of those most directly impacted – the loved ones of the people who died that day – were silenced and forgotten. Even now, the 9/11 museum in New York City is about the breathtaking spectacle of the tragedy. It’s about President George W Bush and his team. It is about the horror of what happened. It is about the power of the US to exact vengeance. It is not really about those mourning the lost, and how they felt, and how their government treated them after the attack. Our remembrance of 9/11 is about the greatness of America; in the process, it fails Americans.   

Terry McGovern is professor and chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and the director of the Program on Global Health Justice and Governance at Columbia University. She is also a friend of my mother’s from high school. McGovern lost her mother, who was in her sixties, in the attacks. Six years after 9/11, McGovern produced a play called 9/11: Voices Unheard.   

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McGovern’s mother had worked in the World Trade Center in 1993 when a bomb exploded in the car park below. The State Department marks this as the moment when the Diplomatic Security Service recognised terrorism as a transnational phenomenon, as opposed to a regional one. It was something else for those who worked there. “She was aware that the World Trade Center was a target,” McGovern said of her mother. It transpired after 9/11 that the CIA and FBI had warned the Bush administration that attacks on prominent domestic sites might happen. “Had they even shared that information,” McGovern said, “my mother would have run out of the building when they were told to stay.”  

After the attack, victims’ families pressured the Bush administration, which initially resisted forming a commission to investigate the attacks, sought to limit the scope of what could be investigated, and reportedly did not want open hearings on the investigation. So much of what the victims’ families were finally able to learn about what happened, McGovern said, they discovered in a “horrible, public way” while sitting in the families’ section of the 9/11 commission hearings.  

McGovern and others who lost loved ones felt a disconnect between the public show of avenging the attacks and the way in which they the administration behaved towards them: in terms of how hard it was to get information about what happened, and in the way their loved ones’ remains were treated. “In contrast to what I would call the 9/11 show, I didn’t think that the families were treated well at all,” she said.  

McGovern, spurred on by her frustration with what the country did and didn’t talk about with respect to 9/11, interviewed family members and wrote her play. “I was just trying to express some complexity,” she said: about what 9/11 was, and who the victims were, and who the families were, and how they felt then and feel now.   

“All of us felt like: stop showing the planes hitting the tower. Stop the flag-waving. You’re not doing that for us,” she said.  

Since 9/11, the US has worn a Janus-face. On the one side was the war on terror: the invasions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of civilians abroad, and the surveillance and curtailing of civil liberties at home. On the other side, there are the family members, friends and loved ones of the 2,977 people who died, who were left to try to piece together what happened and to carry their grief and memories of those they had lost.   

I asked McGovern what she hoped people, 20 years on, would consider about how 9/11 changed the country, and how we remember the attacks and what came after. “The politicisation and exploitation of this event hasn’t served anybody well,” she said.   

She added, “It would be really nice if there was truly some focus on how the families have managed. We were presented with a lifelong challenge.” There is also the burden of wondering when, and how often, and to whom, to disclose this part of their lives. And for some, there was the added insult of the way in which financial compensation was awarded: the Victim Compensation Fund calculated what to give in terms of lost earnings and benefits, which meant that relatives of lower earners and older people received less than others.  

One thing she learned, she told me, is that “people are incredible” and capable of complexity. She watched victims’ families, she told me, full of grief and pain, but nevertheless capable of questioning the government response, and of thinking more deeply about foreign conflicts.   

Those voices – their voices – don’t need to stay unheard. They are speaking. Twenty years later, we can listen.

[See also: How the war on terror changed America]

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