Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Finding Meaning at Ground Zero for Future Generations: Some Reflections a Decade after 9/11

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Finding Meaning at Ground Zero for Future Generations: Some Reflections a Decade after 9/11

Article excerpt


This paper offers a critical analysis of how we should attempt to understand the meaning of Ground Zero a decade after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans may be reacting to this site, much like what often occurs following a major personal loss, by trying to downplay the sheer trauma of the event. While it is virtually inevitable that individuals will likely make sense of Ground Zero through their own personal biases, it is essential that future generations have a clear, full, and accurate representation of the devastation that occurred there.

At the time of this writing, nearly a decade has passed since the horrors of9/11. Some uncertainty remains over how the area that once housed the World Trade Center complex, which included New York City's Twin Towers--commonly known as Ground Zero--will ultimately commemorate the carnage and heroism of that day. The late clinical psychologist, Thomas Conran, argued that it is difficult to experience Ground Zero as a space without actually visiting it. Such a visit, he believed, represents a personal pilgrimage that intersects personal and public tragedy. (1) Setha M. Low, an environmental psychologist and anthropologist at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, asserts that Ground Zero provides all of us, particularly scholars, with the opportunity to examine what is--or should be--the relationship between public space and culture. (2) These observations underscore the point that in order to appreciate the true meaning of culturally or historically important sites, it is critical to have experiential observations of them.

Ground Zero truly is a unique place of death in many respects. One could argue that 9/11, with the destruction of the Twin Towers as the pivotal event associated with that terrorist attack, may have opened a new page in world history. That reason alone makes this event fairly unique. Moreover, no other tragedy (with the possible exception of Jack Ruby's shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald) has been broadcast live on television as it happened. Some scholars have provided evidence suggesting a link between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression experienced by New Yorkers who viewed the graphic images on television. (3) The vivid, horrific images from 9/11 provide another reason why Ground Zero (and the surrounding area) is an extremely unique place: It captures an indelible image of time and place of tragedy. Ultimately though, it will always be remembered as a place where over 2,700 innocent individuals were murdered under some of the most horrific circumstances imaginable. (4)

Understanding the Significance of Places of Death

All cultures feature "death systems" where there is "a sociophysical network whose functions include predictions and warnings, attempts to prevent or inflict death, orientations toward the dying person, body disposal, social reconstruction after death, and efforts to explain or rationalize our mortality." (5) Robert J. Kastenbaum, professor emeritus of gerontology and communication at Arizona State University, adds that a sense of time and place are important to cultural death systems in order to give individuals and society appropriate opportunities to grieve. (6) Indeed, places of death carry with them a special sense of meaning that cannot nor should not be taken away no matter where they exist. (7) Ground Zero is such a place. John H. Harvey, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Iowa, argues that meaning is a process that is constantly being constructed and reconstructed in large part through stories that people tell in their lives and memorial markers. (8) As a New York-raised psychologist who studies loss and trauma, the tragic events of 9/11 had a personal resonance. In providing one perspective on how to make sense of and finding meaning in the horror of 9/11, I offer one such story.

Throughout New York City's history, countless murders have occurred in lower Manhattan--and yet there are no shrines to each of these individuals. …

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