Our Grief Doesn't Make Us Experts; Politicians and Reporters Seek out Our Opinions, but What We Really Know about Is How to Survive Loss
Stern, Nikki, Newsweek
Byline: Nikki Stern (Stern lives in Princeton, N.J.)
We hear so much about "moral authority" these days, but do we know what it means? We might assume it's a quality ascribed to individuals who can provide clarity on the ethical, social or moral underpinnings of particular issues. Those who have it have influence; we pay attention to them because we believe they possess superior vision or perspective. It stands to reason that moral authority is gained through experience and exercised with wisdom and restraint.
Which is why it's so disturbing that it is assigned to (or claimed by) everyone from legislators to talk-show hosts to victims' relatives. When my husband was killed on September 11, I became not only a widow but a "9/11 family member." The identifier set us apart--and we felt apart. When people said they couldn't imagine how we felt, we agreed. This wasn't "ordinary" loss but sudden, violent and public. Terrorists attacked the United States. Whole buildings and groups of people disappeared. The news was saturated, the images continuous, the fear ongoing.
My foray into advocacy for victims' families was based on both altruism and self-preservation. With my partner gone and no children to care for, I could help others using my communications background or walk straight into the ocean. So I was out every day, trying to make sense of the bureaucracies and get information back to psychologically or geographically isolated families. I became a liaison for the New Jersey governor's office and, later, executive director for Families of September 11, a national advocacy group.
Early on, however, the idea took hold that the deaths of nearly 3,000 people represented something larger than personal grief. Our loved ones were "heroes" whose lives were sacrificed to the concept of freedom. We were not only stewards of their memories but symbols of a nation's loss.
The media and political establishments amplified the notion of the "9/11 families" and their moral authority. Media outlets asked for comment. Politicians wrapped their arms and their policies around us. Yet family involvements were diverse--lobbying for a 9/11 Commission, denouncing "unpatriotic" institutions at Ground Zero, protesting or supporting the war. Relatives appeared before Congress, wrote op-ed pieces and endorsed candidates.
Grieving people are vulnerable and susceptible to any opportunity to ease their pain. …