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The Long Funeral

How 9/11 gave way to grief culture.

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9/11 Five Years Later

Anyone who lived or worked in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 has no need to see the new Oliver Stone movie, powerful as it’s said to be. An anniversary isn’t necessary to remember that day. It comes back easily, in infinite detail. We remember, moment by moment, where we were, where our friends were, what we saw and heard and said as we came to awareness about what was happening: That gaping reddish hole in the North Tower (“How do you fix that thing?” was a first question) and the glitter in the air (it was paper—all those file cabinets—people later figured out) around the tower and the plumes of smoke, blowing toward Brooklyn past the Woolworth Building. Live turtles, for sale in a box on Canal Street as the towers burned. A shirtless kid on a bicycle, yelling, “It’s anarchy.” Near the towers, the scene was infinitely darker. “Don’t look, Daddy, they’re jumping,” as one 9-year-old told his father near P.S. 234. The row upon row of ambulances, waiting. And the billowing dust everywhere. The hours afterward were surreal, as people negotiated their fears, or tried to continue their ordinary lives (the man taking his daily jog—a little smoky today). The city seemed completely reinvented; everywhere you looked was something new. The event’s vividness and epic scale gave it its power. It’s alive in the mind, engulfing in its imagery. People knew instantly it was going to be memorable; at Washington Square Park, just past nine, a vendor had brought out a tray of disposable cameras.

And then there were the dead, their faces on posters, when everyone knew they would never be found. How many were they? Six thousand, some were saying, although, officially, no one was saying anything. You couldn’t watch the towers fall without crying—all those families losing parents. If you walked by a firehouse the next morning, you saw burly, exhausted men weeping and hugging, their brothers dead. People felt they knew the dead, and mourned them as if they did, though, of course, mostly they didn’t. Downtown New York at that point was a utopia of grief (the frivolity and intense materialism of the late nineties suddenly banished) with novel and elaborate homegrown rituals of mourning: candlelit firehouses overflowing with flowers, makeshift shrines on chain fences.

In the city in the early weeks, a debate raged between those who resisted the emotional power of the event and those who gave in to it. People who’d seen World War II and Europeans, even rather hawkish and sympathetic ones, tended to wonder, after a while, whether it was time to get back to regular life again. One hated them at the time—their stiff upper lips were a luxury, and a vanity—but now, that argument is more interesting.

New Yorkers tended to want to keep 9/11 (“it happened to us”) for their own, but no one believed that could happen. The grief culture this country has lived in for the past five years began in those spontaneous shrines, but it didn’t end there. Before the week was out, many different interests had moved in to stake their claims on its meaning.

As an event, 9/11 was a perfect entry point into the softness and indulgence and inwardness that mass media are most comfortable exploiting. In this, it was clearly part of what came before, the high-rated bathos of the deaths of Princess Di and JFK Jr. (or more recently, for that matter, the cat stuck in the wall of a West Village bakery), the media’s hunger for strong emotion coupled with its ability to make huge numbers of people think the same thing at the same time. The journalistic necessity of putting faces on the story minted a huge new class of celebrities, dead and alive. Jokes, of course, could be told about Princess Di and JFK Jr. But the grief culture that had just been born imposed its own form of correctness. The circles of loss and victimhood created a new etiquette—who could speak first, what could be said.

The media’s appetite for stories of overnight transformation was glutted in the weeks after 9/11. The event gave birth to myriad complicated figures like Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, who had been the prototypical hard-driving, acquisitive, assholic businessman. Blasted by the loss of 658 employees and colleagues, including his brother Gary, Lutnick was changed instantly into a raging, crying man on a mission—and then, almost as suddenly, changed back into a businessman. George Bush was transformed into a war president. Rudy Giuliani, a fading mayor who’d just undergone an ugly divorce, was suddenly an American hero. Bernard Kerik, who went from mayoral crony and NYPD commissioner to Homeland Security nominee, has fallen furthest of all, having plead guilty to two misdemeanors, after which his name was taken off the jail downtown.


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