War and Remembrance

Four years after 9/11, the war in Iraq casts a shadow on its commemoration

September 10, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow, as America remembers the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the date that reached across cultural and economic barriers to unify a nation will also point up its divisions.

As in the past, Sept. 11 will bring communities together at memorial services, vigils, tree plantings and dedication ceremonies for the victims and their families. But divergent viewpoints about the war in Iraq also will color this year's events. Some will use the day to also protest the war in Iraq, while others will engage it to salute the troops of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In Washington, the annual ceremony for 9/11 victims at the Pentagon has added a "Freedom Walk" and country music concert celebrating the contributions of the U.S. military. Organized by the Department of Defense, the walk is part of its "America Supports You" campaign on behalf of U.S. troops.

On the grounds of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, 9/11 victims will be remembered this weekend as part of a ceremony that focuses on the antiwar themes of "Eyes Wide Open." The traveling exhibit, which displays a pair of military boots representing each U.S. service member who has died in the war, is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice and peace organization.

Are the forces of politics overtaking the commemoration of 9/11?

"It seems to me that the consensus on the meaning of Sept. 11 has run out," says Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. "It was the war in Iraq that slashed through it. I wouldn't expect that that consensus could have lasted interminably in the way that the consensus of Pearl Harbor has lasted.

"It took more than a decade and a work of artistic genius to federate widely divergent visions of the meaning of the Vietnam War into one monument, into the collective image that could be shared by people in various camps.

"Sept. 11 doesn't have that gift of artistic genius to support it. The respective visions of it have forked - and forking is what we're seeing this year."

Even, it seems, among the families of 9/11 victims.

When Colleen Kelly thinks of the death of her brother Bill Kelly, a 30-year-old financial services worker killed in the World Trade Center, she also thinks of the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives since the U.S. invasion.

Kelly, who lives in the Bronx, co-directs September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of about 200 families dedicated to finding nonviolent actions and solutions for justice. One goal is to increase awareness about the deaths of Iraqi civilians, a number some estimates place as high as 100,000.

This year, the group contacted organizers of the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit for help. Although the show included information about the civilian death toll in Iraq, organizers allowed Peaceful Tomorrows to add a labyrinth of civilian shoes - children's as well as adults' - so that visitors could more directly contemplate Iraqi deaths.

"As 9/11 family members, we have taken the civilian losses of this war to heart," Kelly says. "We wanted to call attention to civilian casualties that are incredibly overlooked, under-reported and unnoticed.

"My brother was not murdered by a gunshot in the middle of Manhattan, he was murdered on 9/11. It was a political and ideological act and none of us can change that. We do have control over our response as a nation. The basis of our work has always been `How do we respond to this horrific act in a way that brings about justice to the perpetrators of this crime but does not continue the cycle of violence?'

"We are committed to pointing out that there is no connection between Iraq and 9/11," she says. "Our group has always said, `If there's a connection, bring proof.' If not, what are the other agendas for?"

Tomorrow, during the closing ceremonies for "Eyes Wide Open," visitors will hold hands, remember the dead - the 3,000 victims of Sept. 11, the nearly 1,900 American members of the military, the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians - and contemplate the ever-increasing price of violence.

Supporting military

That same day, Debra Burlingame of Westchester, N.Y., plans to join other relatives of 9/11 victims, members of the military and pre-registered civilians for the first 9/11 "America Supports You Freedom Walk" in Washington. The two-mile route will lead her from the Pentagon parking lot, near the site of the crash that took her brother's life, to the reflecting pool on the National Mall. There, a free concert by country singer Clint Black, known for the song "Iraq and Roll," will celebrate the contributions of soldiers past and present.

(The march and concert required participants to register by yesterday. No one who has not already registered will be permitted to join the march or officially attend the concert.)

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