Remembering September 11th, 2001: A Literature Review


Following the events of September 11th, 2001, discussion quickly started on how the United States would remember the events and recognize the lives that were lost. This is the subject of Erika Doss’, “Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory,” Benjamin Forest’s and Juliet Johnson’s, “Security and atonement controlling access to the World Trade Center memorial,” Christina Simko’s, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” and Richard Gary’s first chapter of “After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11.” While each piece highlights a different aspect of the multilayered conversation, they all work together to identify the difficulties American citizens faced when choosing how to honor and recognize the impact of that fateful morning.

“Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory,” by Erika Doss delves into the controversies surrounding the designs for the memorials in Manhattan, New York and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Originally the article was published in the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History, in the summer of 2011. In the opening, Doss discusses immediate reactions to the attacks in Manhattan, noting that a number of temporary memorials were set up by citizens, but “Within days, people began to talk about how the events of 9/11 might be permanently commemorated at New York’s “Ground Zero,” and elsewhere.” 1 Doss argues that memorials are a good educational tool for cultural memory. She continues by stating that American society has becoming entrenched in “memorial mania: a contemporary national obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express, and claim issues in various forms of public art and remembrance.” 2 When emotions are particularly high there can be significant opposition socially and politically when it comes to the question of ‘how’memorials are designed. The 9/11 memorials were no exception. In New York some wanted to recreate the Twin Towers, others proposed a memorial park, and some argued to leave the area empty. In the end Michael Arad’s and Peter Walker’s “Reflecting Absence” design was chosen. This design featured two pools containing the names of lives lost during the attacks, as well as a memorial museum underneath the memorial. 3 In Pennsylvania the 2,000 plus acres sat in the hands of the National Park Service. Paul Murdoch’s winning design “included a marble wall listing the names of the forty passengers who died in the crash” of Flight 93 and, “a concrete ‘Tower of Voices’ housing forty white wind chimes.” 4 The final piece of the design was set to feature red maple trees in the shape of a crescent moon, which immediately frustrated and enraged many citizens. It was viewed as a symbol oh Jihadist and not in keeping with the sacredness if the site. The board responsible for the project chose to continue with the plan despite controversy. In the end, Murdoch changed the crescent moon shape to a circle to highlight the space’s sacredness.

Moving forward with the designs, controversy continued well into the construction phase. As Forest and Johnson argue in, “Security and atonement: controlling access to the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial,” the security measures taken by officials at the Manhattan ‘Ground Zero’ left Americans to rewrite a wrong. The text, which was published in 2012 for Cultural Geographies, discusses the use of atonement, or the “attempt to right a moral wrong,” as the reasoning behind strict checkpoints visitors of the WTC construction sight were subjected to. 5 Prior to its completion in 2011, the WTC memorial site was monitored by multiple uniformed security. Visitors were required to a purchase ticket, have the ticket inspected by a guard, remove coats and shoes before entering a metal detector, tickets scanned a second time, and marked by colored pen. The entry point also worked as and exit from the area. 6 Even for a temporary time, the close monitoring and heavy security of the site offered parallels to the security measures now used by Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Some would argue that the attacks could have been prevented with better security measures at the airport. The authors argue that these preventative measures where now being used at the memorial site in an effort to prevent any further destruction- destruction that started with the failure of TSA. They continue by writing, “Atonement is thus confined to a fixed period of time, after which the highly visible security feature will be removed, and the moral wrong of security failure will have been rectified.” 7 This was never the intention of the memorial’s designers, whether temporary or not, the goal had been to create an open space for commemoration of the loved ones.

It is the idea of commemoration to which sociologist, Christina Simko, writes of in her 2012 article, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy.” Simko moves away from the physical, memorial commemoration of 9/11, to focus on the way people choose to speak about the events. The article opens with a conversation on what theodicies are and why they are often used in times of suffering. Simko reveals the two modes in which theodicies are manifested in 9/11 discussions – dualistic and tragic. 8 Through “analyses of (1) presidential addresses to the nation from September 2001 and (2) addresses given during official from the tree crash sites from 2002 to 2011,” Simko argues the dualistic mode is utilized in commemorations at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, while the tragic mode is use in commemorations in Manhattan. 9 Dualistic theodicy looks at the loss of life as heroic and sacrificial, for the greater defense of liberties and freedom for which the United States stands for. It portrays the events as a battle between evil and good, where good will always prevail. 10 Simko points out that this approach suits the Pentagon and Pennsylvania memorial sites due to the events, carrier groups, audience, and genre memory of the spaces. The Pentagon is a military building, under the control of the federal government, those giving the addresses are often government officials. It is expected that they convey the ideas of patriotism in this setting, as the Pentagon is a symbol for the military and government strength of the nation. 11 The Shanksville memorial commemorating Flight 93, has a dualistic tone based on the nature of the flight’s final moments. Recordings recovered from the crash site and witness testimonies from families detail the heroic actions of the flight crew and passengers as they attempted to thwart the hijackers plans. Their actions undoubtedly saved many more lives from being lost. 12 Their heroic actions prove that good will come above evil in a fight for our nation. 13 This space is also under the control of the federal government, and is a symbol of the patriotic spirit of American citizens. Manhattan, however, is unlike either of the other sites. This space is not owned by the federal government, rather the Port Authority, and its events are greatly controlled by local authorities. 14This site is not a stage for politics, but rather mourning. The WTC suffered the most quantitative loss during the attacks. 15 It is fitting to use the tragic mode of theodicy here, in order to allow for the mourning of innocent lives. The site was a corporate building, holding ordinary civilian citizens who had no indication of the horror that would soon unfold. 16 Not to mention, those on flights who were among the attacks’ first victims. This space is for reflection. The speakers of Manhattan commemorative services often pull poetry and literature for inspiration. 17

Richard Gary offers insight into how many writers of these pieces to which Simko refers responded to the attacks, in his book entitled, “After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11.”His piece looks at the aftermath of 9/11 from a literary standpoint. In the first chapter of Gary’s book, he explains how many writers had “nothing to say.” 18 The argument is made that the events of 9/11 where familiar, yet strange. It was like a scene from Hollywood, only now the viewers were experiencing the horrific events in reality. What remained was quite beyond anything experienced in reality, leaving people in an immense outcry of emotion, which is also referred to in Doss’ article. The visual aspect of the attacks is what stuck with individuals and left writers with “a powerful series of symbols for and otherwise undesirable and perhaps unkowable event.” 19 A sense of impenetrable borders, something that had been quintessential in American society, had been lost. 20 People all around the world were left in search for words. For writers, this was their trade; they now wondered how it would survive. 21 Their audience, the American citizens, were in the crossfires of controversies and sadness left to decipher what was left of their culture. It is a moment when the world simultaneous stopped and new beginnings started, writers had to decide how they were going to start again.

The events of September 11th, 2001 were unique. Gary’s chapter, “After the Fall,” highlights how it was unlike any day in history. The events unfolded right in the eyes of the public and technology allowed it to be replayed, paused, and rewinded endlessly. 22 This access and proximity deepend the wounds and heightened emotions. Individuals experienced heartbreak, confusion, and anger, to say the least. Not only were they facing loss of life, but iconic symbols of American strength were now destroyed. As Simko points out, the Pentagon, an icon for military strength and patriotism, was in pieces. The Twin Towers that once stood tall in the New York skyline were reduced to piles dust. 23 It was “something empty in the sky” to which both Simko and Gary explain. 24 As Doss’ article illustrates it became a question of how American chose to remember this day moving forward. It became just as much about the physical manifestations of commemoration (for which Doss writes) and the activities within construction of those spaces (for which Forest and Johnson write). As well as, how we right the wrong that started this, if that was even a possibility; and how could individuals find the right words to say (as Gary discusses)? Furthermore, how did the rhetoric of the words that were chosen work to convey the appropriate messages of heroism and moral standing, versus that of mourning and sorrow (as Simko discusses)?

These piece work together to illustrate the complexity of the issues surrounding the commemoration of 9/11. They work to introduce the multiple layers of controversy, emotion, politics, and sorrow that filled the minds of Americans. They offer an abundance of knowledge from the immediate aftermath to the ten year anniversary. What is left to unpack is how these ideas have continued to play out in current times. How has life changed as the memorials have reached their completion? My project will seek to uncover how the ideas expressed by these authors continue to manifest in our understanding and commemoration of 9/11 in our current age.

1 Erika Doss, “Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory,” OAH Magazine of History25, no. 3 (2011): 27.

2 Doss, “Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory,” 27.

3 Doss, “Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory,” 28.

4 Doss, “Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory,” 29.

5 Benjamin Forest and Juliet Johnson, “Security and atonement: controlling access to the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial,Cultural Geographies 20, no. 3 (2012): 407

6 Forest and Johnson, “Security and atonement: controlling access to the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial,406.

7 Forest and Johnson, “Security and atonement: controlling access to the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial,408.

8 Christiana Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” American Sociological Review77, no. 8 (2012): 881

9 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 885.

10 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 886.

11 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 894-897.12 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 893.

13 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 886.

14 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 895.

15 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 896.

16 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 896.

17 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,”889.

18 Richard Gary, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11,(West Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 15.

19  Gary, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11,8.

20  Gary, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11,11.

21  Gary, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11,16

22  Gary, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11,7.

23 Simko, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” 893.24 Gary, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11,5.