A memorial of one

I thought about attending one of the many services held in New York to mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I thought about it but ultimately decided not to.

I told myself that it would feel intrusive to mourn among those who lived and worked here on that day. I don’t think their pain and grief is necessarily greater than the pain and grief of those of us who lived elsewhere (with the obvious exception, of course, of those who personally lost loved ones), but their experience was surely different, more acute.

Confused and frightened, they walked home from work that day amid ash falling from a smoke-filled sky. They passed fire stations transformed into memorials for individual fire fighters who had died at the World Trade Center. Their touchstone for pointing south when they stepped out of a subway station vanished, and its absence is a constant reminder of what has been lost. My experience, by contrast, seems more abstract. I didn’t want to intrude.

But on Monday, when I arrived at Rockefeller Plaza, where I often eat my lunch, a program had already begun: some sort of military band and then bagpipes and then a robust soprano plowing through “God Bless America.” I felt confused. I didn’t want to be part of the crowd pressing against the stage, so I sat alone on a bench on the other side of the plaza, determinedly pressing my nose into The Quiet American, my latest book borrowed from the public library.

Ignoring bagpipes isn’t easy, though, especially when your emotions are in turmoil. I realized that my discomfort with intruding on native New Yorkers was not, in fact, the reason I had avoided programs such as this. I didn’t want to mark the day with a crowd of strangers. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the experience with anyone.

Five years ago, I felt differently. I even participated in a concert to raise money for the Red Cross, and coming together to grieve was moving and meaningful for me. But five years ago, Americans were united in our sorrow and horror. Political distinctions and religious differences melted away as we mourned together.

Now, however, the tragedy has been twisted and politicized. We still mourn, but with so much anger and recrimination dividing us, we cannot mourn together, not anymore, not with our whole hearts. That polarization compounds the tragedy—we have compounded the tragedy—and we cannot even come together to heal.