NEW YORK – The Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony at ground zero has been stripped of politicians this year. But can it ever be stripped of politics?
For the first time, elected officials won’t speak today at an occasion that has allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight.
It’s a sign of the entrenched sensitivity of the politics of Sept. 11, even after a decade of commemorating the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
From the first anniversary in 2002, the date has been limned with questions about how – or even whether – to try to separate the Sept. 11 that is about personal loss from the 9/11 that reverberates through public life.
The answers are complicated for Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
She says politicians’ involvement can lend gravity to the remembrances, but she understands the reasons for silencing officeholders at the New York site this year.
“It is the one day, out of 365 days a year, where, when we invoke the term ‘9/11,’ we mean the people who died and the events that happened,” rather than the political and cultural layers the phrase has accumulated, Burlingame said.
“So I think the idea that it’s even controversial that politicians wouldn’t be speaking is really rather remarkable.”
Remarkable, perhaps, but a glimpse through the political prism that splits so much surrounding Sept. 11 into different lights.
Over the past 10 years, New York mayors and U.S. presidents have been heard at the ceremony, reading texts that have included parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and poems by John Donne and Langston Hughes.
But in July, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum – led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its board chairman – announced that this year’s version would include only relatives reading victims’ names. Politicians still may attend.
The point, memorial President Joe Daniels said, was “honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics” in an election year.
Charles G. Wolf believes it’s time to take political voices out of the anniversary. He says the public’s connection to Sept. 11 has changed, and the ceremony should, too.
“We’ve gone past that deep, collective public grief,” says Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the Trade Center. “And the fact that the politicians will not be involved, to me, makes it more intimate, for the families.
“I think that the politicians don’t need to be there, personally. ... It can be just us. That’s the way that it can be now.”