Grief and Justice

9/11 six years later


Where were you on September 11, 2001? I'm pretty sure that you recall. I was at home listening, as I customarily do, to NPR, which reported that an airplane had apparently just crashed into the World Trade Center. On her way to work, my wife called me from her car, asking if I'd heard the NPR report. We talked about it briefly and I speculated that it must have been a sightseeing plane that somehow went off course.

I went upstairs to finish up writing a column and turned on the television next to my computer. The TV was showing live video of a lot of smoke coming out of one of the World Trade Center towers. I wasn't too alarmed, and the newscasters seemed puzzled about what was going on. Then it happened. As I watched, I saw the second plane slam into the other tower. The shock was instantaneous and profound.

I immediately called my editor, who picked up his phone and said something like, "Ron, got your column in yet?" I asked, "Do you have your television on? If not, go turn it on. We're under attack." He could hear my stress. My wife called to say that everybody was being sent home from her office. Like most Americans we spent the day in front of our television watching as the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded. Shortly after the atrocities—the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the crash of United Flight 93—like most Americans, we hung flags in solidarity.

Now, six years later, you can't help but wonder: Has 9/11 fatigue begun to set in? An article in the September 2 New York Times quotes some Americans who are weary of 9/11 rituals of grief and remembrance. A computer trainer said, "It seems a little much to me to still be talking about this six years later…you get on." And a nurse asks, "I may sound callous, but doesn't grieving have a shelf life?"

In Disaster Ritual: Explorations of an Emerging Ritual Repertoire (2003) a couple of Dutch researchers analyze how public spontaneous responses to calamities have emerged in recent years. The researchers identify "four fixed pillars" of disaster rituals. They are "the silent procession, the collective service of remembrance, a monument, and annual commemoration." A year after the attacks, New Yorkers participated in a candlelight procession from Union Square to the World Trade Center site. Of course there were numerous collective services of remembrance, and church attendance surged by as much as 25 percent. The first "monument" to the event was the Tribute in Light in which 88 searchlights formed two columns of light rising from the World Trade Center site on March 11, 2002. Work has begun on the permanent memorial, Reflecting Absence. And this year will see the sixth annual commemoration of the atrocities.

So does grief have a shelf life? The answer is clearly yes. Americans have gone through all of the disaster rituals, and normal life has more or less returned. Since 9/11, the U.S. economy has grown; gross domestic product has risen by 17 percent. The Pentagon has been repaired and while the skyline of New York is forever marred, the city itself is flourishing.

On a personal note, I can now watch the videos of the hijacked planes crashing into the twin towers and of the smoldering hole punched into the Pentagon without tearing up. Though I must admit some videos are still pretty tough to take. While the 9/11 videos no longer make me grieve, viewing them reignites my fury for our attackers.

The disaster rituals are done, but we lack one important element: resolution. The men who orchestrated the atrocities have not been brought to justice. And they still threaten to attack us. The current issue of Newsweek reports, "Intelligence officials in Europe and America have spent a jittery summer seeing signs that Al Qaeda is gearing up to hit the West in some significant way."

The Bush administration has used the continuing threat of jihadist attacks to justify all kinds of intrusions on our liberties. Such intrusions include everything from the so-called Protect America Act that authorizes secret domestic spying to the once unexceptional freedom to walk into public buildings without being forced to show your identity papers and submit your belongings to x-ray searches.

Just nine days after the 9/11 atrocities, President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." The masterminds behind 9/11 were rooted out of their safe camps in Afghanistan, but they remain at large. While grief may fade over time, the desire for justice never will.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.