The Politics of Silence at Ground Zero

Politicians shy away from making public speeches on 9/11, fearing that they will politicize the mourners. But maybe our leaders should, in the style of Lincoln, provide a new narrative for the tragedy.
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President Obama and and first lady Michelle Obama take part in a moment of silence at the White House on the eighth anniversary of 9/11 / (Jim Young / Reuters)

Over the past 10 years, we have established a number of rituals to commemorate 9/11. We congregate at Ground Zero. We read aloud the names of victims. We beam two towers of light into the night sky above the WTC site.

And, more subtly, though no less significantly, our leaders have established a tradition of their own: perfecting the art of saying very little.

It began on the first anniversary of 9/11, in 2002. Governor George Pataki stood at Ground Zero and delivered the morning's only address: the Gettysburg Address. Pataki was not the first to look to Lincoln in lieu of something original. A few months earlier, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, standing one block from the WTC site and delivering his final speech as Mayor, also quoted liberally from that iconic text.

Some commentators wondered why Pataki, and all other elected officials, declined to pen an original speech for such an historic commemoration. But it had only been one year, some reasoned; perhaps it was too soon to expect reflection and interpretation. As the years passed, commemorations and ceremonies settled into a regular rhythm of reading names. But then, this past May, a new moment for commentary and interpretation unexpectedly appeared: Osama Bin Laden was dead, and President Barak Obama was going to visit Ground Zero and meet with victims' families. Initial reports stated that Obama would deliver a speech there. But President Obama decided not to speak. White House officials explained that he did not want victims' families to feel politically exploited.

As plans for this Sunday's 10 year anniversary unfolded through the summer, anticipation rose once again for original remarks by our public leaders, something that would begin to frame the attacks and the years that followed, something that would offer collective meaning. Something that would move beyond talk of heroism and resilience, two important words, to be sure, which, ten years on, have become a bit worn out. Everyone else -- pundits, journalists, bloggers -- would be chiming in. If one year was too soon to expect a unifying, and perhaps universal, address, certainly a decade allows for some introspection.

This past July, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the leaders gathered alongside him at Ground Zero for the anniversary -- including President Obama, former President George W. Bush, and former Mayor Guiliani -- would read a selection of previously-published poems. "This cannot be political," Mayor Bloomberg said. "No speeches whatsoever. It's not an appropriate thing."

Given the history, Bloomberg's decision is not surprising. Nor is the desire to create an inclusive, apolitical space for remembrance. But no matter who does or does not speak, or what poems are or are not read, politics cannot be removed from this charged piece of land. If a decade of ugly battles, controversies, and rebuilding delays at the WTC site has revealed anything, it is that Ground Zero is political.

What makes Ground Zero so political is also what makes it so important. Over the past ten years, it has hosted more people, from more diverse backgrounds, than any other American locale. I've been interviewing visitors to the WTC site since the fall of 2001: people of all ages and races, the rich and the poor, immigrants, East Coast liberals and Tea Partiers, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims, among others, not to mention downtown residents and victims' families (who also constitute a diverse group), and perhaps the most dominant constituency in recent years, conspiracy theorists. In our era of partisanship and divisiveness, where people only spend time with others just like them, Ground Zero happens to be a place, perhaps the only place, at which all of these people feel like they belong.

Gathering people of different backgrounds and political persuasions together hardly creates harmony. I still remember a string of graffiti I saw at Ground Zero back in 2002. "Our grief is not a cry of war," someone wrote in marker on a temporary wall. "Fuck you, you left wing coward piece of shit," another wrote back. I couldn't help but think there was something poetic about the exchange. It certainly captured the mood of the moment. Was there any other place where these two people would co-mingle? And, today, is there any other place at which one of our leaders could speak to such a broad swath of the country?

Any speech at Ground Zero on the anniversary, by any politician from the left or right, would anger someone. Bloomberg is right. But silence is political too. It contributes to the uncertainty and fear that still defines the world we live in.

It's tempting to try to imagine what an original, public address about 9/11 would look like. It's tempting, but also difficult, for there is no preexisting national narrative that 9/11 fits neatly into. This, however, is precisely what original thought, original speech, is for. To provide a new narrative. And this is what leaders do -- they take a risk, and tell a new story.

Perhaps the 20th anniversary will afford such an opportunity. In the meantime, at least we have the Gettysburg Address.