Tensions over how to pay proper respect to the dead are overshadowing New York’s memorial at Ground Zero as a gap widens between survivors and the general, more forgetful public 11 years after 9/11.
Just days before the latest annual remembrance of the cataclysm that saw hijacked airliners flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the once overwhelming sense of national solidarity appears to have faded.
At the somber site, which only opened last year to mark the spot where over 2,600 people were killed on September 11, 2001 out of a total of nearly 3,000 dead, police, private security guards and volunteer guides are enforcing strict rules on decorum.
The measures are aimed at curbing what some relatives of victims see as rising disrespect, ranging from picnics under the newly planted oak trees to an incident in June when visiting high school students threw trash into one of the black pools marking the footprints of the fallen towers.
Signs insisting on good behavior are everywhere around the huge pools and bronze panels inscribed with the names of the dead.
“If you see anyone scratching, sitting on or otherwise damaging the names panel, please alert memorial staff,” reads one such notice.
Nothing like serious vandalism has occurred, but even the most seemingly benign activities, such as thousands of tourists snapping photos of each other in front of the monument, are too much for relatives who refer to the site as “sacred ground.”
“People laughed and took pictures smiling, and so many people leaned on the tablets with all my friends’ names engraved in them, holding Starbucks cups, like it was a kitchen table,” complained Marianne Pizzitola, head of a fire department retirees group, in a widely published letter to the memorial’s president Joe Daniels.
Those tensions are part of a broader shift as the raw horrors of 9/11, which also saw the hijackers crash a third plane into the Pentagon while a fourth plummeted into a Pennsylvania field, become less salient for most people.
On the anniversary, relatives will again go through the heart-rending Ground Zero ceremony where the names of all 2,753 people killed there are read out.
When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year brought up the possibility of scaling down the lengthy ritual, he immediately prompted a backlash from some victims’ families.
Throw in the politicized furor over plans for a nearby Islamic cultural center and a lawsuit filed by atheists against a steel cross in the Memorial Museum and Ground Zero can sometimes seem less than the peaceful place for remembrance that it is meant to be.
And for those who want the eight-acre memorial to remain a restricted zone for ticket holders, things are only going to get more uncomfortable.
When the surrounding skyscrapers of the new World Trade Center are finished and leased, the memorial is designed to become fully open.
At that point, the shaded plaza around the fountains won’t just make a perfect spot for the odd tourist picnic but a likely destination for thousands of office workers on a lunch break.
Lauren Lent, who was across the street when the planes struck on 9/11 and who now volunteers at the memorial, says she dreads the potential security problems and the inevitable lowering of tone.
“I like it the way it is. I like that it’s structured and organized. I’m a little leery about the day when we will open it up. I’m very frightened,” she said, standing by the fountain at the old North Tower.
“If we were to open our grounds up and have people throwing a Frisbee around, I wouldn’t want that. A lot of people died here and a lot of them were not recovered, so they’re still here. It’s sacred.”
However, Julie Storer, 44, whose friend Robert Peraza was among 658 workers killed at financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald between the 101st and 105th floor of the North Tower, said she was ready to see Ground Zero enter a new era.
“I’m all for helping us move from a place where it was a gaping hole to where people live,” she said. “It will be so much better than this being a dead, dark mausoleum.”
Michael Allen, who teaches history at Northwestern University, said experience with monuments around the world shows that the intense feelings of the 9/11 victims’ families won’t fade quickly.
“Peak commemorative anniversaries tend to happen at the 50- and 75-year mark, because that’s when a lot of the survivors are dying,” he said.
“You can bet that the relatives of those who died will push to keep things as they have been for as long as they can.”