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Silencing politicians at Sept. 11 ceremony
No speeches at ground zero
Question of the Day
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 Tuesday at an occasion that has allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight. The change was made in the name of sidelining politics, but some have rapped it as a political move in itself.
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 feels politicians’ involvement can lend gravity to the remembrances, but she empathizes with the reasons for silencing officeholders at the New York ceremony 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, said Ms. Burlingame, who’s on the board of the organization that announced the change in plans this year.
“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.
Officeholders from the mayor to presidents have been heard at the New York ceremony, reading texts ranging from parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to poems by John Donne and Langston Hughes.
But in July, the National Sept. 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.
Some victims’ relatives and commentators praised the decision. “It is time” to extricate Sept. 11 from politics, the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial.
But others said keeping politicians off the rostrum smacked of … politics.
The move came amid friction between the memorial foundation and the governors of New York and New Jersey over progress on the memorial museum. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, have signaled their displeasure by calling on federal officials to give the memorial a financial and technical hand.
Some victims’ relatives see the no-politicians anniversary ceremony as retaliation. Both states’ governors have traditionally been invited to participate.
“Banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision,” said one relatives’ group, led by retired Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches. His firefighter son and namesake was killed responding to the burning World Trade Center.
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