Press Box

Nobody Owns 9/11

And the World Trade Center site is not hallowed ground.

Site of the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center

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.”

Politicians and pundits across the board embraced the hallowed-ground concept, even if they didn’t all agree on how that hallowed ground should be treated. Jack Kemp wrote that the WTC site was hallowed the way the Gettysburg battlefield was hallowed. Rudolph Giuliani called it a “hallowed ground” and a “burial ground” but thought part of it should be developed.

Even today, as construction of the new WTC proceeds, politicians still pay lip service to the hallowed ground. Speaking last month about the dispute over the nearby Islamic center, President Barack Obama said, “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”

Does the hallowedness of the WTC site derive from the fact that so many died there? Or does it derive from the way they died? I say neither. There is no getting around the fact that hallowedness is a religious concept. Something can’t become hallowed all by itself—not even a cemetery. It takes a religious rite to render something sacred and holy, and no such consecrating words were spoken over the WTC site. But even if one had been conducted, would it be binding on nonbelievers? I think not. Seeing as we don’t live in a religious state, all protestations about WTC hallowedness are just loopy poetry and bad metaphor. The Pentagon, also struck by the 9/11 jihadists, has its memorial, but almost nobody calls that crash site hallowed.

Charles Krauthammer used the hallowed dodge in his Washington Post op-ed as a way to argue against the construction of the Islamic center.

“When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there—and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated,” Krauthammer wrote.

But if Ground Zero belongs to those who suffered and died there, why is Larry Silverstein building on it? Because he acquired the site. The place is not sacred. It’s profane. Just look at the property records. All of this talk about hallowed ground is a lame attempt to leverage ownership of 9/11—something that can’t be owned, I’ve already insisted—and to commandeer the collective memory of the attacks. Don’t the people who can’t stop talking about hallowed ground realize that they’re the ones who are needlessly politicizing the slaughter?

I’m all for remembering the murdered, preserving dignity and memory, and even building memorials. I don’t defile graveyards. I don’t desecrate churches, synagogues, mosques, or Buddhist temples. I don’t burn Qurans. I respectfully observe funeral motorcades. I blaspheme, but that’s my own business. But I draw the line at spiritualizing the WTC site and its vicinity. We honor the dead not by fetishizing the memory of their gruesome death but by respecting the living.


How’s that for channeling my inner Hitchens? Send hate mail to Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Correction, Sept. 14, 2010: In the original version of this article, the name of CBS’s Jane Clayson was misspelled. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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