Living with the Dead
History, politics, and loss



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Confronting the traumatic aftermath

Additional Scholarly Responses to Sept. 11


Death and the bones of the dead have long nourished American political and cultural life. Yet as many commentators have repeatedly asserted, the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, were unprecedented. People think of the destruction of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Pearl Harbor, even the carnage of some of the deadliest battles of the Civil War. But try as we might, we do not have an adequate frame of reference within which to comprehend the events and say goodbye to these dead. Media stories of “ambiguous loss” and moving ritual creativity by the grieving indicate the depth and power of the collective psychic instability in the wake of these attacks.

Historically, certain deaths have made a dramatic impact on the national psyche, including the deaths of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and more recently John F. Kennedy, Jr. After these figures died, Americans found innovative ways to memorialize them. Public displays of communal mourning—sometimes officially organized, sometimes more spontaneous expressions of shared loss—brought people together across class, gender, religious, and racial lines. These public performances of civil religious community united in grief enabled some transcendence of the cold, brute facts of death.

The cold, brute facts of these acts of terror will not be easy to transcend for those most wounded or the rest of us, psychically scarred by the images of hijacked planes and exploding buildings. Institutional religion provides the most gratifying answers to the horrible questions associated with the deaths of innocents. But the dead themselves are another matter altogether, and churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship cannot always control the cultural mechanisms that allow survivors to live with the dead. The victims will haunt imaginations yearning for visual confirmation of familiar, recognizable bodies.

Without identifiable bodies to ground our responses, Americans are left with literally nothing on which to focus our hearts and minds. Instead, the sad flyers with pictures of the missing inhabit our imagination. Pictures of life, of individuals once in the midst of life but now disconnected from any material form, line the streets of New York City and mark memorial spaces.

Such ritual actions in the name of the dead, and other efforts to give adequate meaning to the enormous loss of life, are necessary if we are to return to normal. In spite of the scale of the destruction, the current levels of anxiety and depression, and the deep sense of bewilderment associated with the vicious attacks, any attempt at returning to normal must include finding a way to live with the dead.

For the American public, the news media provides a crucial, pervasive filter that simultaneously creates and responds to our desire to keep the dead in mind. How many died? Can we get a glimpse of any bodies, or body parts, from the crime scene? What were the last words from those able to make phone calls? These questions, as well as a general tendency to personalize individual stories of those who perished in the attacks, will continue to shape the cultural meanings associated with September 11.

The dead now have a political role to play as well, providing visceral, undeniable evidence that will be used to justify war and likely produce even more death. The thousands of Americans who died horribly that day, and who remain irretrievable for many families, assume a prominent place in public consciousness as the military attacks the country’s enemies. In this sense, the civilian dead in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania are martyrs, the first casualties in America’s first war in the new century.

While family members and friends will find their own way ritually to say goodbye to loved ones without the body present, the nation will draw regenerative strength from permanent memorials around the horrific sites of destruction. These sacred sites dedicated to remembering the dead (already prominent on the mall in Washing-ton, D.C., but also found at Civil War battlefields and other locations) transform the physical landscape and become pilgrimage centers that reinforce the national community.

The dead from these attacks will no doubt also return as subjects in popular culture offerings, including films, television specials focused on specific acts of heroism and tragedy, and even web sites devoted to memorializing those who died.

In most cases, rather than trivializing the horror or exploiting those most affected by it, popular culture will serve as a significant arena to remember the dead and grapple with the psychic, imaginative, and symbolic remains of all this carnage. Bereft of the routine rituals of burial and of individual gravesites, these dead will not go away. They will stay with us, will be part of the American cultural and political landscape, for many, many years to come.