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One Year Later

Dr. Mary O' Sullivan's brother, Joseph P. McDonald, worked as a broker for Cantor Fitzgerald and was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. He was 43 years old, and the oldest of seven children. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters. Dr. O'Sullivan is an adjunct professor of American History at Seton Hall University, and lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

The media buildup to the one-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, for me, was both irresistible and repugnant. It began in earnest in mid-August, just as I began a family vacation. With more time on my hands than usual, I found myself drawn to TV stories and articles about those, like my brother, murdered by terrorists, and those, like me, who were left to deal with it. Some stories helped; I realized that many of the emotions and feelings I experienced were shared by others, and that I wasn't crazy.

Early in September, though, I reached critical mass, and I found myself increasingly unable to watch the shows or read the interviews associated with 9/11, they were simply too sad. And anyway, what more could possibly be said? I was even beginning to feel manipulated -- that the biggest news story of our time had become an industry unto itself, one that sold papers and advertising.

The commentary reached fever pitch beginning Monday, September 9, 2002. That week, though, I consciously turned away from it all as I began to sink into my own thoughts and memories. I felt as if I was reliving the days leading up to that day, constantly, intensely aware of my actions and thoughts, because my memories of that time last year are so incredibly sharp. I can recount hour by hour what I was doing Monday night, September 10, 2001 -- I taught my first class of the semester that evening, stopped at Starbucks for my drive-home coffee -- and Monday night, September 9, 2002, was almost exactly the same.

And then it was Wednesday, September 11, 2002, and there we were, my two brothers and my sister and I, on the edge of "the pit" that was the World Trade Center. We woke up early, caught a surprisingly crowded downtown train, chatting idly. The reason for the day hit us immediately as we climbed upward toward the street and saw hundreds of police, barricades, and lots of official looking people scrambling around talking into phones and walkie-talkies. "Family members?" "Yes." "This line, please."

We were all there for the same reason. The atmosphere was quiet and somber, reflective. It was also warm and friendly, even tender. We looked at each other and smiled and were overly polite. The woman next to us lost her husband on the second plane to hit the tower. She was a stranger to us and yet we struck up a conversation that was full of intimate details of the life she and her husband had. She told us, verbatim, the phone message he left her at 9:00 a.m., three minutes before the plane hit the south tower (she had memorized it, she said). She also told us that in his message, he told her they "were going to do something." I never knew that.

I also never expected to feel fear, but I did. I'd heard the heightened terrorist warnings beginning on Tuesday afternoon and self-consciously decided to ignore them. I started to feel nervous, however, as the police filed in, in ever-increasing numbers. When someone turned on the microphones, the howling wind blowing through them sounded so much like exploding bombs that I could not believe the enormous crowd of mourners wasn't running for their lives.

It took a while to realize that the military helicopter was obviously, intentionally circling lower Manhattan -- that it was supposed to be there. And then I thought -- if something did happen, there are too many people here for me to move quickly and we would be caught up in the chaos. Just like Joe.

And then we heard his name read, just a moment in time, but it was his moment, and our moment for him.

Apparently, abruptly, the moment is over. It still makes me glad, though, when friends tell me they heard his name and saw his picture as they watched the 9/11 anniversary on television. It's very important to me that Joe's murder continues to be acknowledged.

Last September 29, I spoke at Joe's memorial, and I insisted, maybe out of a sense of desperation, that there had to be some redemptive meaning out of all this loss. There had to be. Our nation is still too close to it to see what that meaning is, but I worry that our collective attention span isn't long enough to stick it out and uncover it, and discuss it, and learn from it.

I worry about this in part because I never want Joe to be forgotten, and also because I'm an historian. And while the essence of history invites us to ask, "how did that happen?", most Americans don't use or regard history as a tool in that sense. We are a forward-looking people, for good and for ill. The media of the late 20th century has underscored this propensity. The news cycle only lasts one day before it's on to the next story.

At its best, the media attention surrounding 9/11 has served as an excruciating, constant reminder to the world that almost 3,000 people died, and that they were just like you, and that their deaths mattered greatly to thousands of others. At its worst, it felt manipulative. Now I'm just surprised at the speed with which the spotlight faded. Where has everyone gone? Don't we want to know, "how did that happen?"

By Mary O'Sullivan

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