Tomorrow, as America remembers the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the date that reached across cultural and economic barriers to unify a nation will also point up its divisions.
As in the past, Sept. 11 will bring communities together at memorial services, vigils, tree plantings and dedication ceremonies for the victims and their families. But divergent viewpoints about the war in Iraq also will color this year’s events. Some will use the day to also protest the war in Iraq, while others will engage it to salute the troops of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In Washington, the annual ceremony for 9/11 victims at the Pentagon has added a "Freedom Walk" and country music concert celebrating the contributions of the U.S. military. Organized by the Department of Defense, the walk is part of its "America Supports You" campaign on behalf of U.S. troops.
On the grounds of the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, 9/11 victims will be remembered this weekend as part of a ceremony that focuses on the antiwar themes of "Eyes Wide Open." The traveling exhibit, which displays a pair of military boots representing each U.S. service member who has died in the war, is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice and peace organization.
Are the forces of politics overtaking the commemoration of 9/11?
"It seems to me that the consensus on the meaning of Sept. 11 has run out," says Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. "It was the war in Iraq that slashed through it. I wouldn’t expect that that consensus could have lasted interminably in the way that the consensus of Pearl Harbor has lasted.
"It took more than a decade and a work of artistic genius to federate widely divergent visions of the meaning of the Vietnam War into one monument, into the collective image that could be shared by people in various camps.
"Sept. 11 doesn’t have that gift of artistic genius to support it. The respective visions of it have forked – and forking is what we’re seeing this year."
Even, it seems, among the families of 9/11 victims.
When Colleen Kelly thinks of the death of her brother Bill Kelly, a 30-year-old financial services worker killed in the World Trade Center, she also thinks of the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives since the U.S. invasion.
Kelly, who lives in the Bronx, co-directs September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of about 200 families dedicated to finding nonviolent actions and solutions for justice. One goal is to increase awareness about the deaths of Iraqi civilians, a number some estimates place as high as 100,000.
This year, the group contacted organizers of the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit for help. Although the show included information about the civilian death toll in Iraq, organizers allowed Peaceful Tomorrows to add a labyrinth of civilian shoes – children’s as well as adults’ – so that visitors could more directly contemplate Iraqi deaths.
"As 9/11 family members, we have taken the civilian losses of this war to heart," Kelly says. "We wanted to call attention to civilian casualties that are incredibly overlooked, under-reported and unnoticed.
"My brother was not murdered by a gunshot in the middle of Manhattan, he was murdered on 9/11. It was a political and ideological act and none of us can change that. We do have control over our response as a nation. The basis of our work has always been ‘How do we respond to this horrific act in a way that brings about justice to the perpetrators of this crime but does not continue the cycle of violence?’
"We are committed to pointing out that there is no connection between Iraq and 9/11," she says. "Our group has always said, ‘If there’s a connection, bring proof.’ If not, what are the other agendas for?"
Tomorrow, during the closing ceremonies for "Eyes Wide Open," visitors will hold hands, remember the dead – the 3,000 victims of Sept. 11, the nearly 1,900 American members of the military, the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians – and contemplate the ever-increasing price of violence.
That same day, Debra Burlingame of Westchester, N.Y., plans to join other relatives of 9/11 victims, members of the military and pre-registered civilians for the first 9/11 "America Supports You Freedom Walk" in Washington. The two-mile route will lead her from the Pentagon parking lot, near the site of the crash that took her brother’s life, to the reflecting pool on the National Mall. There, a free concert by country singer Clint Black, known for the song "Iraq and Roll," will celebrate the contributions of soldiers past and present.
(The march and concert required participants to register by yesterday. No one who has not already registered will be permitted to join the march or officially attend the concert.)
Burlingame’s brother, Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame, was the captain of American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked by the terrorists. A former fighter pilot and Naval Academy graduate, Burlingame died the day before his 52nd birthday. Three months later, Congress passed a resolution designating Sept. 11 as Patriot Day. Although the document makes no direct mention of the U.S. military, Debra Burlingame believes the servicemen and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan should be included in 9/11 ceremonies because they embody the determination of that day.
"I believe that 9/11 was a rallying moment for this country and for the thousands of young men and women who said, ‘My country needs me.’ They saw those towers fall and heard the story of Flight 93 and said, ‘It’s our turn. We want to serve our country.’ They ‘re-upped’ and enlisted in unbelievable numbers.
Burlingame often thinks of a widely reprinted aerial photograph taken in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2003. It shows Marines forming the message "9-11 We Remember."
"Soldiers revere Ground Zero," she says. "I’ve seen them stand there and bow their heads. They very much connect what they’re doing to Sept. 11 – and that means a lot to me."
9/11 Pentagon memorial
Some who lost relatives to the terrorist attack at the Pentagon will not participate in the walk but will attend an earlier ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The day is also planned to raise awareness – and funds – for the 9/11 Pentagon memorial, which will cost $18 million to build and $10 million to maintain.
The Freedom Walk’s sponsors include Stars and Stripes newspaper, the Subway sandwich chain and defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The Washington Post, an early sponsor, decided instead to donate money directly to the Memorial Fund because of concerns the event could become "politicized."
"I think people have misconstrued the purpose of the Freedom Walk, and that’s really unfortunate," says Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense. "I can’t find a person who lives in this country and calls himself or herself an American who criticizes an event that pays tribute to the victims of 9/11 and honors our veterans past and present. …
"We’re going to reflect on the tragic thing that happened this day and renew our commitment to the freedom that is so important to us. In doing that, we have to pay respect to our military past and present. This is not about Iraq, not about any one geographic location, this is about all our men and women in the military."
Sheri Parks, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, says it can seem irresistible to harness the power of a symbol that’s so universally embraced.
"You can say ‘Pearl Harbor’ to our grandparents and that will have a riveting effect, but say it to a 20-year-old and it does very little," she says. "There may be nothing in the American culture [today] that will evoke the same response from small children to the elderly as the words 9/11 will. … The reaction to 9/11 is unambiguous. Even if you disagree on the causes and responses, that galvanizing emotional response of horror was something we all had."
However, as the popular notion of Sept. 11 begins to age, she says, it can lose some of its emotional pitch.
"It was the rallying cry for the invasion of Iraq, but if you use it as the rallying cry for the continuation of the war, it doesn’t have the same impact, at least according to the polls."
In theory, Sept. 11 remembrances commemorate the victims in New York, Arlington and Pennsylvania, says Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. Since the tragedy, Americans have become more politically minded, influencing how they perceive gas prices, Hurricane Katrina – and Sept. 11.
"Increasingly the political disconnect is occurring at the connection between those Taliban and al-Qaida attacks and our current military campaign in Iraq," Felling says. "Iraq draws the Mason-Dixon line of Red America/Blue America, so that any event connected with it inevitably sets off a debate."