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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.
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
"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
"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.