In Bereavement, Pioneers on a Lonely Trail
The New York Times The New York Times New York Region September 8, 2002  

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In Bereavement, Pioneers on a Lonely Trail

(Page 2 of 4)

Some historians say that the families, in their ardor and anguish, are writing a kind of public postscript to Robert D. Putnam's book "Bowling Alone" (2000, Touchstone). Professor Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, describes an American social fabric that has come apart at the seams over the last half-century, as everything from volunteerism to voting unraveled. The post-Sept. 11 community, believers say, is showing how the old knots might yet be retied.


Emerging Images
Shared Emotions
And Expectations

Americans may have said that they wanted to hear the truth about Sept. 11, but what they really wanted, anthropologists and media critics say, was a good story a narrative that would pull together the threads and themes that people wanted and needed to believe. Every player in the telling, they say, had an angle. The government needed symbols to build public support for a war. The news media, focusing on institutions like the police and fire departments, sketched a portrait of noble sacrifice and courage.

And so the victims and their families became icons, two-dimensional figures that could represent the face of what happened stand-ins, as the sociologist and author James M. Jasper puts it, for the nationally shared emotions of vulnerability and loss.

"They came to be seen as representatives of an event, rather than as individuals," Dr. Jasper said. "It's pretty unusual for a group to be used that way."

But that swirl of imagery, symbolism and patriotism and many family members say, political spin did more than create a portrait. Much of the energy and anger that has emerged in the family community much of its identity, in other words is a response to the perceptions and myths with which people feel they were burdened.

Family members say they want their loved ones, above all, to be remembered not as props or pawns, but as flesh-and-blood human beings who dreamed and laughed and cried. And only then, they say, can the true impact and meaning of Sept. 11 be understood by the nation. Where the Great Oz advised Dorothy to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, many survivors of Sept. 11 want to tear the curtain to the ground.

Were the victims heroes?

Nikki Stern, who lost her husband, James E. Potorti, was confronted with the "H-word," as many family members call it, last fall when a woman called about a quilt that was being put together, similar to the famous AIDS quilt of the 1980's. Heroes, the woman said, would be in the center, and everybody else would be on the outside. She wanted a picture of Mr. Potorti, a vice president at Marsh & McLennan, for the outer ring.

"I guess my husband was everybody else," said Ms. Stern, who sent a picture, despite her misgivings.

Some family members say that while there were many heroic acts that day, society's fixation on the hero tale denigrates the majority of people who were simply doing their jobs and who now risk being dismissed from the nation's memory as second-class victims. Others say the hero story devalues every victim because the worshipful imagery was rooted in manipulation emotional sleight of hand by politicians who wanted to distract the public from the government's security failures.

"If you have 3,000 people slaughtered, you have to say, who's responsible for the slaughter," said Monica Gabrielle, who lost her husband, Richard an office worker and who now is co-chairwoman of one of the family groups, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. "But you don't have to look at who's responsible if they're heroes, do you?"

Were the victims doomed to their fate?

Media critics say that one of the touchstones of the Sept. 11 narrative was the idea that luck or chance dictated the divide of life and death. Many stories focused on the missed train, the alarm clock that did not go off. There was a democratic leveling that underpinned the narrative, a wrong-place, wrong-time theme that gave the telling a religious, mystical bent, as though the finger of God had stabbed through the world.

"We wanted to see it as something that could happen to anyone," said Gary Alan Fine, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. "That became important, that it was the luck of the draw."

The complicated truth is that hierarchy and class played a role in who died, as did initiative and personal choice. There were stories about secretaries who died because they had to be at their desks at 8:30 at the risk of losing their jobs while their bosses who were dropping off the kids at school survived. Other stories are emerging about how individual decisions to take an elevator, to aid or comfort a co-worker determined whether people survived.

Family members say that debunking the myth of fate is part of their effort to challenge the status quo in general. Assigning blame to God or finding comfort in blind providence might be appealing, they say, but it does nothing to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.

Are the families greedy?

Americans sue one another all the time, so the idea of attaching a monetary figure to one's suffering or loss should hardly come as a shock. But dollar signs and death became more intertwined after Sept. 11, most experts agree, than ever before in a disaster. And that changed what the families became as they came together.

Congress forged the money connection with the creation of the Federal Victim Compensation Fund in the days after the attacks. The fund was part of a package of legislation to protect the airline industry and the owners of the World Trade Center: families would be barred from filing lawsuits as the price of participating in the fund.

But the money then became a virus, family members and outsiders say, especially after government figures were released suggesting that the families could receive up to $1.85 million each. The number changed how the families were perceived by the nation, and how the families themselves behaved. The "greedy family" became a stock villain on daytime talk shows. Some families received hate mail. The nuances of the fund that pension benefits, Social Security and life insurance would all be deducted, leaving many families with far less in compensation got ignored, family members say.

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
A year after Sept. 11, the victims' families, like Tom and JoAnn Meehan, say that what defines them most is their sense of separation from other Americans.


An Accounting of the Victims

Interactive Feature: An Accounting of the Victims


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