TAKEN TOGETHER, the posters plastered throughout Lower Manhattan attest to a very different type of mourning. Walking down Fifth Avenue, I tried it was an impulse half journalistic, half sociological to take in as many " missing " posters as I could. This effort lasted for just over two city blocks. Gazing at each name and face quickly became unbearable. The photographs were of people at parties, at dinners, in the office. They were smiling, looking silly or playful. It was excruciating to read their ages, their years of birth, their nicknames, which floors they worked on. The terror of those who made and hung the posters was as palpable as the lives that had been captured in all those quick snapshots. missing on sept. 11. if seen please call ... followed by a phone number in Queens, New Jersey, Staten Island, Connecticut, Brooklyn. It wasnt simply the multitude of posters and images and names that was emotionally straining although that was one mark of this very d3ifferent sort of mourning. It was seeing the same poster, like a specter, half a block later. The sheer numbers, the repetition, and my attempt to remember the details who was holding the black-and-white cat? who was waving into the camera at a birthday party? who looked half-drunk at an after-work party? drove home the awful personalness of the event. A scholar once noted that it was a mistake to say that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. One Jew was killed, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another. In this case, it would be a mistake to say these were " people who worked at the World Trade Center. " These were simply and not so simply individuals, each one caught in the horrors of history.
Theres only one true precedent in this country for trying to deal with random death, loss, and pain on such a massive scale: the Names Project AIDS Quilt.
NEW YORKS " missing " posters appeared out of urgent necessity: the immediate need to find loved ones. The AIDS Quilt came into being just as spontaneously. In 1985, a small group of friends in San Francisco decided to do something to commemorate their dead lovers and friends. The result was the quilt: it was an unguarded, unorchestrated response that became, of necessity, a public display. And just as the " missing " posters pack an emotional and spiritual punch by communicating something intimate quickly and publicly about a lost loved one, so does the quilt.
When I first viewed the AIDS Quilt, when it was displayed in Boston in the late 1980s, I read with great interest all the individual panels that listed the interests of the dead: the clubs to which they belonged, their favorite songs, their most cherished movie stars, their hobbies, their biological families, their dreams. Some panels had teddy bears sown onto them, others had mawkish poetry or song lyrics. At some point after an hour dissolved in tears I realized that I would not have liked many of these men. We had nothing in common, we had drastically different politics and taste; we would have avoided one another at bars and parties. But the power of the quilt of this mammoth talisman to the democratization of death was that none of that mattered.
I was struck by the same thoughts as I walked around Lower Manhattan. I knew none of these people; I may not have had anything in common with most of them. Yet the question of liking or not liking them was entirely irrelevant. Like the quilt, these posters and fliers brought the hard, harsh reality of death and grief into public view and made visible the fears and sorrows that we Americans usually keep private.
Perhaps one of the reasons Americans have maintained our emotional privacy is that we feel safe in private. But this kind of safety is a false safety. It is an individualistic, stingy, even selfish refuge from the world. One of the reasons turn-of-the-century immigrants were so public with their lives and emotions was that they realized there was safety in community. The great power of the Names Project was and is that it represented a claiming of public space by a community under siege. After September 11, New York along with the rest of America no longer feels safe. Yet by grieving in such a public manner for the thousands who died, we are attempting, in small, intuitive ways, to create a new type of community. Perhaps we are only as strong and safe as we are able to be open, honest, and emotionally vulnerable in public.
Michael Bronski can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: October 11 - 18, 2001