Now, as the solemn anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks arrives, the United States finds itself in the midst of another national tragedy—a rolling, day-after-day assault on our country that so far has killed more than 60 times as many Americans as the attacks of 9/11.
So why does the grief of 2020—when the coronavirus pandemic has actually filled hospitals in New York and in communities across the country—feel so different? Why does our country, so united after 9/11, feel so splintered now?
The attacks of September 11 taught Americans a new set of rituals for collective grief. The days and months that followed were an exercise in mourning on a national scale that would be refined over the next two decades, after large-scale disasters as different as mass shootings and wildfires. Now the aftermath of such events follows a distinct arc: The community that experiences the tragedy announces itself “strong,” flags fly, the news media run pictures and profiles of the victims whose promising lives were cut short, the president and other national leaders arrive for a mass funeral in a stadium or convention hall, and monuments get built quickly.
We now know how to do tragedy. We know how to turn individual loss into national symbols. The ambitious New York Times “Portraits of Grief” project personalized and humanized the tragedy of 9/11, breaking readers’ hearts with mere snapshots and sparse anecdotes only two or three paragraphs long. The story of one firefighter, Michael Carlo, so moved me that I tore it from the newspaper—this was, after all, back when most Americans read physical newspapers—and carried it in my wallet until it crumbled.
Earlier this year, the paper filled its entire front page with names as the country hit 100,000 dead, one-line obituaries for a thousand people felled by the virus. The Times is reprising those portraits of grief, profiling the ordinary and extraordinary lives cut short by the novel coronavirus. And yet the exercise this year feels dissimilar—the loss of life is no less tragic, the pictures are familiar, but the presumption that every American is experiencing the same kind of grief has vanished. Why?
In 1967, the sociologist Robert Bellah posited the idea of a unique American “civil religion.” He argued that the U.S. had established “from the earliest years of the republic … a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that bind its citizens together.
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Our history, he argued, has long focused on two seminal events—the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the trauma of the Civil War. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and the Founders first gave our country meaning, Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, introduced to the country “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth,” Bellah wrote. National cemeteries enshrined those martyrs in the public’s memory; the battlefields remain hallowed pilgrimage sites today. The historian Drew Gilpin Faust, in her book This Republic of Suffering, traced how the Civil War changed the way America grieved, because, for the first time, Americans in large numbers were dying away from home and family. Americans needed to collectivize their grief.