Missteps, lessons in recalling 9/11

By Kathleen Burge Boston Globe

Twelve years after the planes crashed and the towers fell, two local high schools found themselves at the center of controversy for doing too little to mark the anniversary of September 11, 2001. Local pastors debated how they should pay tribute to those who died.

And the question arose: As 9/11 falls further into history, how should we go about each passing year in honoring the day’s victims and heroes?

At Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, many students were dismayed that for the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the day did not begin with a moment of silence. At Concord-Carlisle High School, students began the day hearing a poem about a Muslim woman, and did not recite the Pledge of Allegiance as usual.

Raw feelings around the 9/11 anniversary also surfaced when the Massachusetts Port Authority held a training exercise at Logan Airport on the date of the attacks. Governor Deval Patrick later called it “just dumb.”

“In the instance of 9/11 or the Boston bombing or other atrocities that have taken place in the US, I think there is a much wider desire to keep these memories alive because this was a moment in national history,” said Karen Remmler, a Mount Holyoke College professor who studies the politics of memory in the aftermath of an atrocity.

Locally, the proper way to memorialize a tragedy is still a tough subject when it comes to this spring’s Boston Marathon bombings. The Watertown Police Foundation is creating a calendar of images, and towns and schools have honored the responders and the victims, but no permanent memorial has been planned.

Local pastors, like school principals, decide each year how to pay tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Rev. Roger Paine, senior minister at First Parish in Lincoln, set aside a minute of silence for the dead and the rescuers last Sunday.

“Is there ever an end?” Paine asked. “With days like that, it seems like no, there isn’t. It’s good for the country to at least pause for a moment and pay tribute.”

On the anniversary of 9/11, officials at Concord-Carlisle decided that students would hear the poem by Mohja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears,” to promote cross-cultural understanding. The Pledge of Allegiance was not recited because of a mix-up with the day’s student reader, principal Peter Badalament said in a statement later.

At a meeting Tuesday night at Concord-Carlisle High School, nearly 100 parents turned out, some to excoriate school officials and others to praise the reading of the poem. Some of those disturbed by the poem called for the resignation of Badalament, who has apologized for the school’s handling of the 9/11 anniversary, calling it “inexcusable.”

“My daughters were troubled by what they heard,” said Concord resident Ellen Rice. “At CCHS, there has not been a moment of silence yet. I understand you apologized, but we still have not honored all those who had died.”

But other parents welcomed the poem, and the message it sent to students.

“Both my daughters were profoundly moved by the poem,” said Concord resident Augusta Heywood. “I found the poem to be about inclusion and things that join us together. For me, that was a profound message.”

At Lincoln-Sudbury, the school’s interim superintendent and principal, Bella Wong, apologized for the absent moment of silence and scheduled one for the following day.

People who want to remember those who died on 9/11 may have different reasons for doing so, Remmler said, and that may create controversies like the one at Concord-Carlisle High.

Some people may have a direct connection to someone who died, she said. Some may want to mark the day to show solidarity for victims of the attack. Others may want to remember the day to show patriotism. And school officials may want to use the anniversary as a teaching moment.

“I think it’s really about the need for this to go beyond the individual experience,” Remmler said. “I think because 9/11 and the Boston bombing became such a national and, I would argue, an international event, I think the event becomes very political. It becomes fraught because it’s no longer just private.”

Once a physical memorial is created — such as the 9/11 memorial in New York City, and the Garden of Remembrance in Boston — so, too, is a permanent tribute to those who died and were injured. “So as long as the site exists, people will remember it,” Remmler said.

The Rev. Kate Malin, rector of St. Anne’s in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, marked this year’s anniversary in her church with prayers for the victims of 9/11 as well as for all victims of terrorism and conflict.

“We come together because we need to be guided through that to a new place,” she said. “Most of us don’t know how to do it by ourselves.”

In Watertown, the scene of a shootout between police and Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, April’s events still feel recent enough that no one seems to be thinking yet about marking the one-year anniversary next spring.

“I think it’s the furthest thing from peoples’ minds,” said Mark Sideris, president of Watertown’s Town Council. “It’s really very early.”

But Malin said that when the tributes take place, people may feel bound together by their shared experience.

“Ideally, when we mark the first anniversary of the bombing, we’ll be able to say, look where we’ve come since that time. Look how we’ve changed for the better,” Malin said.

“We will never forget the lives that were lost, but evil will not triumph.”

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