A Note on Post-Terror Commemoration

“Wtc-2004-memorial” by Derek Jensen – Tysto. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

 By Helena Flam and Leah Yael Flam

The text you might decide to read is actually a case study. It is meant to illustrate that sites reminding of violent terrorist events – when defined as meaningful and worthy of commemoration – often have diverse stakeholders. Their stakes in the site rarely coincide. The actual commemoration practices are an outcome of power struggles carried out between shifting coalitions of stakeholders about how to define the site.

The case study focuses on Ground Zero in New York City. But it was put together for the Norwegian government and may become relevant for Paris, still in pain after the most recent terrorist attack.

What connects NYC, Paris and the Norwegian government? You may recall that in 2011 Norway became a site of a terrorist attack. That year in July a Norwegian citizen, Anders Behring Breivik, set off a van bomb in Olso killing several people and then shot dead 69 members of a Workers’ Youth League during their stay in a summer camp on the island of Utøya. His acts of terrorism shook up the Norwegian society, not the least because it woke up to passionate racism and racial hatred in its very midst. A year later Breivik was convicted on several counts. Some time later the Norwegian government endorsed the idea of creating a commemoration area near the actual site of the terrorist attack. A jury was selected, a competition was held and a winning project selected. To its great surprise, however, some of the local residents mobilized to oppose this plan. The response of the government was to commission a survey and a report from the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS) to find out how local community residents respond to commemorating sites of violence. There is very little research on this particular aspect of commemoration, so the report had to rely in part on press accounts. Next follows an excerpt from the report. It focuses on Ground Zero, highlighting the barriers to consensual commemoration in the wake of a terrorist attack organized by outsiders.

Ground Zero, New York***

On the 11th of September of 2001 the New York Times reported: “In parallel attacks in New York City and Washington, planes crashed into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center around 9 [this morning] and a plane later crashed into the outer ring of the Pentagon building…”  In New York City the American Airlines Flight 11 / Boeing 767 going from Boston to L.A. crashed into the northern tower of the World Trade Center followed by the United Airlines Flight 175 also flying from Boston to L.A. hitting the south tower. What became known as 9/11 attacks were a series of coordinated terrorist activities on American soil.

Shortly after the collapse of the World Trade Center in NYC and its surroundings, that is, early in 2002, residents of Lower Manhattan embarked on the long process of brainstorming, negotiations and power struggles about what was to become of “Ground Zero” – a devastated area left by the attack.

Ground Zero and its Multiple Owners – legal and emotional

At the onset it seemed that the case of ownership of Ground Zero was clear – the land was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a developer, Larry Silverstein, who had leased the office space. A question emerged how such clear-cut legal ownership could be reconciled with the loss of 3,000 people at the World Trade Center? According to Greenspan, “Victims’ families and neighboring residents believed they had legitimate claims to the WTC site, as did many New Yorkers, as did many of the thousands and ten millions of people coming to see the destruction. . . Everyone owned Ground Zero – or, at least they believed they owned a piece of it”.

But “many downtown residents and small business owners worried about living and working in an area overwhelmed by death and destruction. They wanted to mark the loss but also wanted their neighborhood back, as quickly as possible. The designers, some of whom lived downtown, were well attuned to these concerns, as well as the broader challenge that rebuilding posted: creating a place that would meet the needs of so many different groups”. A conflict line emerged between residents, on the one hand, and the families and rescue workers, on the other: “Residents and business owners wanted to make sure a rebuilt site captured a sense of ongoing life and recovery. Meanwhile, families and rescue workers were more likely to use the term graveyard.” The term graveyard became contested and avoided by the designers after several focus-groups had been held.

Local Employment, Business and Residents

The attack erased 100,000 jobs from the Lower Manhattan. Small businesses suffered great losses. In an online BBC video clip small business owners recollect their experience. A Chinese restaurant owner, Mr. Fong Chao, remembers residents saying to him and his crew when his restaurant resumed its daily business: “I’m glad to see you guys, I am glad you are still here” and Fong Chao replying “I am glad to see you guys survive”. Both residents and business said by 2011 that they were keen to return to business-as-usual. As long as the hole in the ground was there, it reminded them that their everyday had changed – the hole was a painful reminder of the past, and the urban landscape was alerted, never to be the same again.

Many could not receive help because of red tape and massive confusion. They lost their key customers yet were not eligible for charity. Peter Muscat, for example, says he was denied a Small Business Administration disaster loan because he did not want to use his house as a collateral, and had to dig into his life savings to make it through a year when business all but stopped. Loss of faith in government agency and private charity added up to all other sense of damage.

The residents displayed a wide range of physical and emotional problems, and showed continuous syndromes of stress. A resident remarked “seeing your neighborhood turned into a war zone is really very stressful”.

However, by 2005 a majority of New Yorkers felt it was time to move forward. In 2005 a telephone poll with 931 participants showed that 61% percent of New York Residents surveyed felt that enough time had passed speaking about what should be done at Ground Zero and that the time had to come to start development. An overwhelming majority of almost 90% of New Yorkers wanted a permanent memorial to victims, but 57 % also supported the construction of office and residential buildings. Those who said they wanted only a 9/11 memorial weighed in at 29 percent; and 8 percent said it should stay just as it is now: an open hole in the ground. The New York Times reported that in general “the views of those who said they lost someone close to them on 9/11 [were] little different from the opinions of all city residents on what should be done with the trade center site . . . City residents [were] closely divided in their opinion of the plans for the Freedom Tower, with 43 percent saying they like[d] the current design and 40 percent saying they dislike[d] it.” Whatever was to be built on the site was equally an act of symbolic politics as was its destruction. Closure became an important topic. But the authorities and tourists did not let it happen.

Tourists and Residents at War

Commemoration began with silence and metaphorical rhetoric followed by physical commemoration. Shortly after the attack, the curious public flocked to the site of 9/11. In 2001 visitors, including friends and family, were accompanied by patient New Yorkers explaining what was where and what remained of the twin towers. The BBC article “Tourists flock to Ground Zero site” reported that “. . . faced with the reminders of death, most tourists are quiet, and unusually polite. There is no laughter here. Many people pray and contemplate”.

Already by 2003, however,  newspapers such as the New York Times reported on the exhaustion of the residents reacting to the tourists outside their windows with words such as “this is not Disneyland” – clearly disgusted with what some feel is still disaster tourism.

In keeping with what has become a popular way of mourning and showing grief in the US, a mountain of teddy bears grew under a white tent. Further, “[o]ff Broadway by Liberty Street, a whole block was consumed by flowers, flags, and banners, tripping up pedestrians as they tried to make their way”. Some commentators see these as gifts of presence and a form of expressing grief. Others say it is also a form of voicing claims upon land.

Seeing themselves confronted by mountains of such expressions of grief, a group of downtown residents started a letter-writing campaign calling upon the city to clear away all the memorials around the site. One resident remarked: “what had been a tapestry of love and support has become an eye sore for our community . . . In fact it has become an impediment to our recovery”.

An important absence could be seen in the streets – of New Yorkers: many city residents said they “disliked the crowds: the more the tourists filled the streets of Ground Zero, the more many city residents avoided the area. Some never went to the site, while others went once or twice in the first days after”. Some residents reported unpleasant experiences with visitors and tourists, one resident suggesting that “tourists be restricted to the eastern boundary of Ground Zero…”.

Memorial, Tourists and City Fathers or: Jobs and Profits

Residents living close to Ground Zero continued to be upset and outraged by the behavior of visitors, spectators and those crowding their private and public space. Numerous articles suggested that security procedures alone could not protect residents. Survivors clearly felt that authorities were not doing enough to protect the memory of victims and the Ground Zero itself. Perhaps mindful of these sentiments, in 2004 State Legislature passed a new law limiting the number of legal street vendors on sidewalks in an effort to maintain Ground Zero as a sacred site.

To the city fathers, however, the emergence of a flourishing residence area and a lucrative tourism industry were essential to the revival of the area. Many people had moved to the area incentivized by government rent subsidies meant to revitalize the zone. According to the 2010 census, the district, including the neighborhood, had grown more than any other in the state.

For business the tourism industry has been a blessing, bringing jobs, people and life to the area. According to The Wall Street Journal the “attacks left an indelible mark on New York City’s tourism industry: the number of hotels downtown has tripled in the past decade, and the area attracted a record-breaking nine million visitors in 2010, according to the Downtown Alliance”.

The memorial built on the site and opened to the public in 2011 has become a top tourist attraction: in its first year it had approximately 4.5 million visitors. Four months ahead of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, New York City started a campaign to lure further tourists to the area surrounding Ground Zero with hotel deals and discounts. The campaign was to showcase how lower Manhattan has been rebuilt since the terror attacks, celebrating the revival of the Manhattan neighborhood.

The flipside of the revival and the large numbers of visitors is the unresolved question of how to market such a destination without appearing to exploit or diminish the tragedy and without promoting what has been termed dark tourism.

The conduct of some of these visitors left much to be desired in the eyes of both surviving relatives and residents. A headline run by the Telegraph in 2012 said “[t]ourists have been showing ‘disrespect’ at the Ground Zero memorial in New York ahead of the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to victims’ relatives”. The article reported several incidents New York residents found upsetting. In “. . . a letter to memorial president Joe Daniels, first responder Marianne Pizzitola said she found people acting ’like this was a park or playground’”.

The memorial also became a site of a large scale sale of souvenirs. To some: “[t]he souvenir culture at Ground Zero functions as a means to provide connection to the site, to testify to a visitor’s pilgrimage there, and to provide comfort – the comfort of kitsch, and the comfort that commerce continues”. To this commentator, commerce, kitsch and comfort provide a sense of normalcy in confrontation with traces of past mass violence. Others see the commercialization process just as another symptom of tourists’ disregard for the dead and their survivors.


The Ground Zero case shows that even in a community united in its understanding of the terrorist attack, a diverse number of stakeholders in the site on which the attack happened project their emotions and beliefs on this site. These are incompatible: while victim’s families, rescuers and many of the neighboring residents see the site as a graveyard and call for its respectful treatment, tourists see it as diversion point on their travel map and a welcome opportunity to express grief – often in a commercialized form of depositing plush animals, toys, flowers, flags, postcards, poems, etc. on the ground.

This form of expressing grief has become widespread in the US and some other countries, but it upsets the privacy and the freedom of mobility of the local residents. Local small businesses and vendors have to balance between servicing and profiteering from others’ sorrow, and become an object of criticism and regulation when they seem to fail to do so. Finally, local government, bent on removing the stigma, reviving the area and increasing its own tax base, lures tourists to the area, aggravating the conflict between them and the local residents.

*** The Ground Zero case study – as also some other case studies prepared for the report – were a work of a research team: Helena Flam (Ph.D.) and Leah Yael Flam (M.A.). The actual excerpt was modified to fit The Leipzig Glocal. For sources of information/citations please either contact the first author to receive the entire report or look up its Norwegian version (NKVTS, project 601501). If you read Norwegian, you can access the text presenting the outcome of the survey and the report.

Helena Flam is a self-described nomad who got stuck in Leipzig as a professor of sociology. For LeipGlo, she cites from her mind's travel logs. She enjoys exploring and sightseeing. She's a great consumer of fiction, and likes good art exhibits, an occasional concert, film and biking.

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