Skip to main content

On grief, rage, and commemoration

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | September 11, 2010

Families of survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York are deeply divided about a proposed building project on the site of the tragedy.

Just not the project that most readers would think.

As detailed on its official website, the site of the attack is slated to have a completed memorial one year from now:

The Memorial will consist of two massive pools set within the footprints of the Twin Towers with the largest manmade waterfalls in the country cascading down their sides….

The names of the nearly 3,000 individuals who were killed in the September 11 attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, and the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing will be inscribed around the edges of the Memorial pools.

The Memorial pools will each be nearly one-acre in size. The names of the victims will be inscribed on parapets surrounding the pools, within groupings that will allow for family members, friends, and co-workers who shared life’s journey and perished together to have their names listed side by side.

An eight-acre landscaped Memorial Plaza filled with nearly 400 trees will create a contemplative space separate from the sights and sounds of the surrounding city.

The design draws from a now-familiar repertoire of elements for sites of public mourning in the United States: water and nature as signs of peace, stone as the durable medium of commemoration, and the inscription of names as the means to preserve the individuality of those who died.

These are elements that can be credited to the success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, DC. Her design was controversial when first proposed but changed our notions of how to produce a meaningful space of memory and mourning that works both for those with personal losses to remember others for whom those losses are a distanced and more public historical event.

The project at the World Trade Center site has another, more controversial, component: two years from today, a museum, constructed underground on the footprint of the Twin Towers, is slated to open.

A USA Today report summarizes what has been criticized, notably, the plan to incorporate unidentified human remains in the museum (although not visible to visitors), characterized as a “macabre, if invisible, tourist attraction”.

The article describes the “raw emotion” of the survivors as standing in the way of their “moving on”. It cites Notre Dame historian Erika Doss saying she is surprised by the “intensity” of feelings nine years after the attack:

“It’s a different country than nine years ago, but it’s amazing how people are hanging on to this. There are people who are still really, really angry.”

Anger and “intensity” of emotions: I think immediately of a turning point in the anthropological study of death, loss, and mourning: an essay by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, published under the title “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage”.

In it, Rosaldo described how he finally came to understand the simplicity of an Ilongot man’s description of grief at loss, and how rage caused by that grief led to the desire to commit violence against others.

Rosaldo’s understanding came through personal experience, starting with the unexpected death of a brother and culminating when his wife and colleague, the anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo, died in an accident during their shared fieldwork.

“Probably I naively equated grief with sadness”, Rosaldo writes. “My life experience had not as yet provided the means to imagine the rage that comes with devastating loss”.

“Only after being repositioned through a devastating loss of my own could I better grasp that Ilongot older men mean precisely what they say when they describe the anger in bereavement as the source of their desire to cut off human heads”.

Rosaldo’s experiences led him to think differently about the barely articulated circuit of grief and anger that Ilongot men had described for him as something experienced deeply, rather than rationalized and debated:

“Bereavement should not be reduced to anger, neither for myself nor for anyone else… I experienced the deep cutting pain of sorrow almost beyond endurance, the cadaverous cold of realizing the finality of death, the trembling beginning in my abdomen and spreading throughout my body, the mournful keening that started without my willing, and frequent tearful sobbing.”

Intense emotions like anger and their continued expression are the distinctive property of those who actually lost close family and friends nine years ago. While the rest of the country “moves on” (including descending into politicization of the tragedy), these people are still grappling with their deep, intense feelings.

For survivors who support the development of a museum on the World Trade Center site– even if they do so with reservations– it is the promise of incorporating objects with intimate, personal resonance in public history that the museum offers. A lacross stick; a $2 bill; a woman’s purse; these will be transformed into sites of memory of their lost loved ones.

Eileen Fagan, who donated her sister’s purse, says

“We don’t have that much family. People aren’t going to remember her except for this pocketbook. It’s the story of her life. She was like a lot of people that day, going to work, just doing her job.”

Or as another survivor who donated to the museum, Myrta Alvarado, said,

“It’s the way I can give him something, to put him in the middle of history.”

Even Diane Horning, who declined to contribute and believes the museum is premature, supports it because of the role it could play for other survivors:

“People desperately want a place to honor the victims and connect with their feelings.”

That is something that Renato Rosaldo taught anthropologists how to understand: the need to connect with the deep feelings of grief and anger that death of those close to us can bring.

Comments to “On grief, rage, and commemoration

  1. Thank you Carl and adam, if the professors who post on this blog do not join together to “Fight Like Hell for the Living” ASAP this may be the last century for anthropologists to study.

  2. John well stated,What and uphill climb to spark involvement so few are engaged at the awareness level about the consequences of ignorance,all who read awaken talk to anyone who will listen our chances of evolving to a Democratic state filled with inspiration for future generations is in question.Read as many of the posts on all of the Professors blogs as possible absorb the comments and filter the incite, aspire to do more for the change that must take place integrity,honesty,loyalty,ethics,morality,
    thanks John for the inspiration empathy,education,knowledge,innovation,
    sharing integrate these ideas into the vocabulary of your way of thinking
    reduce,conserve, recycle.This planet is one living organism if we don’t live in harmony with it our species will be given a terminal cocktail of
    Mother Earths retribution.Six billion years this world has been here, and were the sweep second hand of that six billion year clock close on midnight we would appear two seconds before midnight,The biosphere will
    protect its self from us.

  3. I would argue that the greatest threats facing the US today are those Anthony St. John identifies: how we will respond to our own effects on the environment, including undeniable global warming; the exhaustion of fossil fuels that is predictable and that we yet are not addressing, for example, by serious government funding of new green businesses and basic research like that done in universities; our increasing promotion of forms of food production, such as industrialized feedlots and farming, that not only repeatedly produce health threats but also break down traditional forms of society in rural America; and disinvestment overall in education.

  4. Professor Joyce, Carl, et al., from posts and discussions like this it now appears that we are living in the new age of terrorism and social chaos.

    A fact of life throughout the history of different groups living in close proximity is that there has always been a sense of insecurity. But since the Cold War, world war type global threats have disappeared, and today our insecurities breed conflicts that are increasingly defined in terms of terrorism and social chaos due to overpopulation and decreasing resources.

    One most interesting difference from the Cold War and global wars during the 20th century is that acts of terrorism most often carried out by ordinary people instead of state leaders.

    Yet no one is discussing why the number one priority for LNL’s new NIF remains hydrogen bombs while controlled fusion is still not the paramount priority even though the Keeling Curve has been exponential for decades, and we are now involved in wars due to terrorism and social chaos that don’t require hydrogen bombs at all.

    It would appear that prime questions that we should be dealing with on the Berkeley Blog today must include:

    Why does UC continue to fail to deal with the challenges of change, continuing to focus on military-industrial complex profits that President Eisenhower gravely warned us about in 1961 instead of survival of humanity in the new age of terrorism and social chaos, plus overpopulation and decreasing resources?

    Specifically, why aren’t we producing a new world-wide source of clean energy, clean water, opportunities, jobs and quality of life for all? Shouldn’t this be the paramount mandate for a world with truly enlightened leadership that has finally completed the evolutionary process from ape into to wise and rational man, where we act on long-term survival of humanity instead of continuing to satisfy individual lusts for short term greed at last?

  5. Joyce and John at long last we are engaged in substantive dialog I will not defend my remarks,they make points that stand by the nature of the threats being plotted against us also,One would know that all Muslims are not terrorist, polling the American people for opinion about a misunderstood culture that is so maligned by the media into the psyche is unscientific let us all strive to expose the high jacking of a spiritual concept by the wahabist.Clarify and educate anyone and all you have occasion to.This is the key not yet put to the lock.

  6. John the struggle we face from wahabist hatred is greater than the threat we faced from Japan and,Germany combined.Consider the oil money as the fuel that enables the perversions.There are 1.5 billion Muslims more than one six the population of this World.Germany population 1939 was 58 million,Japan population 1936 69 million and they almost pulled off Global domination.I think Americas lack of understanding this power is our enemy.Freedom from the domination of OPEC is the beginning.Sever the umbilical cord that enables the terror {Energy independence now} the Manhattan project Obama spoke of in a pre election speech is and must be our goal

    • I would argue that the greatest threats facing the US today are those Anthony St. John identifies: how we will respond to our own effects on the environment, including undeniable global warming; the exhaustion of fossil fuels that is predictable and that we yet are not addressing, for example, by serious government funding of new green businesses and basic research like that done in universities; our increasing promotion of forms of food production, such as industrialized feedlots and farming, that not only repeatedly produce health threats but also break down traditional forms of society in rural America; and disinvestment overall in education.

      To me, these failures to identify real threats and cope with them in part have to do with the encouragement of hysteria by professional commentators and politicians. That includes ungrounded hysterias that merge together small groups of criminals and identify entire populations with them. Whether that is the slippage from talking about Mexican drug traffickers to talking about undocumented immigrants from Mexico that is inherent in the Governor of Arizona’s claiming (falsely) that undocumented immigrants were leaving decapitated bodies in the deserts of her state; or the claim that all the followers of Islam in the world are terrorists; these are simply not true, and they are ways to demonize other people.

      There is reliable research. The Pew Research Organization, among others, has published polling data on topics like this. They document great variability in attitudes towards terrorist activities, and they discriminate (as any academic would insist we must) between members of terrorist organizations and the general population. It is not helpful to merge these.

      Pew quotes anthropologist Scott Atran (2004) saying there is “no evidence that most people who support suicide actions hate Americans’ internal cultural freedoms, but rather every indication that they oppose U.S. foreign policies, particularly regarding the Middle East.”

      Most important, Pew Research found declining support for terrorist activities between 2002 and 2005 (the two points of polling they were analyzing). The study they did is complex, there is great variability between countries, and different questions draw different responses. Most of their polling shows solid majorities opposed to violence against civilians, with the proportion of people opposing such violence increasing in general. In cases where countries experienced terrorist attacks internally, dramatic increases in opposition to violence against were recorded.

      Exceptions to this tend to be countries where US policy is actually affecting the local population negatively. Polling specifically shows that there is less opposition to violence against Americans in Iraq– understandable since the US in fact invaded the country and occupied it. But even here, where violence against Americans is seen as part of a military resistance to occupation, the number of people supporting violence declined, in most cases to far less than a majority opinion. Finally, in most of the poll results, support specifically for Osama bin Laden also declined.

      Most pertinent to your citing wahabism, a specific Islamist philosophy, as a threat are the Pew Research Center’s findings about correlations of attitudes toward terrorist actions and religion. As they note:

      Both the academic literature and the popular press have emphasized links between terrorism and an extremist brand of Islam. Responses to three questions are used to explore any potential relationships between opinions on religion and terrorism. The first asks respondents whether their primary identity is as a Muslim or as a citizen of their country (Jordanian, Moroccan, etc.). The second asks how important it is that Islam plays a more influential role in the world than it does now. The third asks whether the respondent thinks there are any serious threats to Islam today.

      Pew Research found that even the majority of those who expressed these opinions did not approve of violence. They conclude that “the belief that it is important for Islam to play an influential role in the world is positively related to support for suicide bombing in Iraq and confidence in bin Laden. The perception that there are serious threats to Islam is positively associated with support for suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians, as well as suicide bombing against Westerners in Iraq. However, primarily identifying as a Muslim is not significantly related to any of the three dependent variables.” (emphasis added)

      Identifying as a Muslim is not significantly related to approval of violence.

      Instead, “the perception that Islam is under threat is positively correlated with support for terrorism”.

      Among the things that encourage the idea that Islam itself is under threat are in fact broad rejections of an entire religion based on falsely attributing to all or the majority of its adherents tendencies toward violence. We have to stop doing this.

      Especially in the US we have to stop doing this, because a final research finding of the Pew Study is that “the perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally in international affairs, concerns about the American military becoming a threat, negative views of the Iraq war, the belief that the U.S. opposes democracy in the region, and a generally unfavorable view of America all drive pro-terrorism sentiments.”

      We do not counter negative views of the US by denying freedom of religion to one group of people, by attributing to practitioners of a religion tendencies to violence or support for violence.

      • Professor Joyce and Carl,

        The inescapable fact of life on planet earth today is that if Homo sapiens continue to fail to live up to our species name meaning wise and rational man, we shall most certainly fail to complete our evolution from ape to wise and rational man and our self-destruction shall be unavoidable. It really is that simple.

        There are just too many of us on earth today, with rapidly declining resources that can only result in out of control acts of self-destruction unless we immediately change our ways to achieve world peace and cooperation, mutual respect, empathy, education, innovation, sharing, integrity, ethics and morality with the required sense of urgency all over the world.

        As things are going today, with out of control greed and corruption practiced by all of our institutions, it’s just a matter of how many more irrational acts it will take for us to self-destruct.

  7. Professor Joyce, this post correctly focuses us on one of the most serious attack against the United States of America in our history, an act of terrorism that continues to threaten Democracy more than any attack against Democracy since WWII and the Cold War.

    We must make certain that We are now taking actions to end the threat of terrorism against civilization today, in addition to the threats of global warming, poverty and immorality that are also overwhelming us today.

    Considering all of these threats, a most important article in the September October 2006 issue of CALIFORNIA asks a paramount question facing us today “Can We Adapt in Time?”

    Or, to put it another way, Will We Allow Ourselves to Complete the Evolutionary Process from ape to man, from irrational impulses to higher values such as world peace and cooperation, mutual respect, empathy, education, knowledge, innovation, sharing, integrity, ethics and morality at last?

    One solution is that We must not continue to allow “Others” to run the world for us. We must all share responsibility for future quality of life on earth and We must all participate in that process.

    Former civilizations such as ancient Assyria, Egypt, Rome and MesoAmerica are the past, and we must learn from their failures to prevent our continuing to make them over and over again ourselves, or our future will continue to be threatened, even with possible extinction.

    Out of control population was a paramount concern when I went to Berkeley in the 60s, which has now become a fact of life that is still not being dealt with by “Others.”

    We have always known, at least for the last 100 years, what the problems will be, We have discussed and studied unacceptable consequences perpetually, but We still fail to take responsibility to implement solutions, letting “Others” continue to fail to do the right things for us.

    All that We keep proving is that “Others” (mainly politicians and intellectuals) shall continue to fail until We all take responsibility for our future.

    “We The People” was a most successful concept in the 18th century, but we failed to protect and perpetuate that concept because far too many allowed greed to dominate our values, letting poverty, immorality, terrorism and indolence get out of control.

    We must all do better today, or else totally unacceptable consequences shall be our legacy.

    Thank you for your efforts in helping us all make the right things happen Professor Joyce.

Comments are closed.