Every year, the custody battle over 9/11 becomes more contentious. The current furor over the proposed construction of an Islamic center a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center footprint has made this anniversary of the carnage at the towers, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pa., more prickly than usual.
New Yorkers have thought from the beginning that the calamity belongs to them because, well, because they're egocentrics who think that everything belongs to them. But New Yorkers would also have you believe that the day belongs to them because their city endured the greatest fatalities. (The Jerseyites who died? Fuggedaboutit.)
Those who lost relatives in the attacks tend to think of 9/11 as their personal property because their immediate loss was so great. But that doesn't mean they see eye to eye about everything 9/11. Some would have liked to see the WTC site sculpted into a "cemetery" or permanent memorial. Others thought their special status should have given them a louder voice in dictating the size, shape, and use of any replacement buildings. Today, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows sings "Kumbaya" as they encourage alternatives to war and attempt to build universal fellowship. The September 11th Education Trust, which started as a family group, seeks to preserve the day with oral histories and archival materials. Meanwhile, 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America takes a hard line and is currently protesting the building of the Islamic center.
Politicians claimed ownership of 9/11 almost from the get-go to advance their goals. Within five hours of the strike, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was plotting ways to harness it as an excuse to attack Iraq. The Bush administration and Congress invoked 9/11 as they rushed into law in six weeks an act composed largely of a police- and surveillance-powers wish list they had been keeping on a shelf, which they dubbed the USA PATRIOT Act. And, of course, the Bush administration repeatedly conjured images of 9/11 over the next 20 months to successfully campaign for the Iraq invasion.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani grabbed 9/11's pink slip before the dust had even settled. President George W. Bush rushed to the site to wave the flag and hug the firefighters. New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki spent more than one-third of his 2002 State of the State address talking about 9/11, according to the Albany Times Union, which came in an election year for Pataki. When Pataki challenger Andrew Cuomo claimed that the governor had merely "held the leader's [Giuliani's] coat" and not led after the attack, Republicans went insane on Cuomo, and newspaper editorials denounced him for needlessly politicizing the day!
Claiming ownership of a day is a little like claiming ownership of the wind. Nobody can prevent you from staking your claim, but getting your hands on the deed usually proves impossible. Ordinarily, Americans sort out these historical property disputes by ignoring their differences. That's what Northerners and Southerners eventually did about the Civil War, um, I mean the War Between the States. Although the two factions may still disagree vehemently about the war's causes and its prosecution, they're united in their interest in the war's history and its battlefields. So they've politely agreed to share custody. More recent American epochs, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Dec. 7, have been bled of any strife and most of their import over time. Independence Day is the best example. It's long been more about time off work, cookouts, and fireworks than about liberty.
The sharpest example of this sort of holiday erosion can be found in Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has been observed as a federal holiday since 1986. Although much argued over when adopted and not embraced by all states until recent years, it's now as dull and mainstream as tap water. While still a supersignificant day for some, its strict observance has waned. In a decade or two, maybe King Day will become something like Presidents Day or Memorial Day—a noteworthy holiday but also an occasion for free curbside-parking and shopping.
How far away can 9/11 sales at department stores be? Pretty far, I would guess, because too many people still regard 9/11 as a religious holiday by insisting on calling the WTC site "hallowed ground."
The earliest reference to 9/11 hallowedness I uncovered was published in the Sept. 13, 2001, Oregonian, where a sportswriter called "Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon" hallowed ground. A story in the Sept. 18, 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the airliner that went down in Pennsylvania quotes the brother of one of the flight's victims. He called that crash site "hallowed ground" and added, "When you think of it, it was our first victory against the terrorist threat."
Over on the television side, on Sept. 20, 2001, Jane Clayson * of CBS's The Early Show and Katie Couric of NBC's Today, both called the WTC site "hallowed ground." Clayson's usage indicated that the idea had already gained currency. "But so many people see that site now really as hallowed ground, because there are thousands of bodies that are entombed there. I mean, should we build a structure on that site?" Clayson said. On NBC, Katie Couric offered, "Given the lives lost, it should be hallowed ground."