Volume 20, Number 27 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 16 - 22, 2007
The 9/11 syndrome of playing the victim
By David Stanke
Why would a person fabricate a personal 9/11 survival story? How is it so special to be connected to the 9/11 attacks? Predictably, people have lied to get 9/11 financial assistance. But Tania Head apparently fabricated a detailed, emotionally compelling story of 9/11 survival and is not accused of benefiting financially from her fraud. She used her apparent lie to undertake a life in the 9/11 community, becoming the president of a 9/11 advocacy group.
News photos on the story show Ms. Head talking to Rudy Giuliani, Governor Pataki and prominent 9/11 activists. Was she simply an attention-starved person looking for her 15 minutes? She expended too much effort into her cause for such a fleeting benefit. Why would she wrap her life in an event to which she had no connection?
Everything 9/11 is treated with respect and deference. The New York Times article exposed the case with delicate yet methodical precision. The facts are laid out gently, with sympathy. Even an alleged 9/11 fraud is enveloped in a blanket of sympathy, support and deference. No other disaster could provide this level of protection six years after the event.
The still incomprehensible scale of the World Trade Center collapses generated a massive, sincere outflow of good will. The country, even the world, reached out to support every victim of the attacks. No one would consider an act or comment that might bring pain to a 9/11 victim. The beauty of that response was uplifting and inspiring. As a resident of one of the buildings closest to the W.T.C., I experienced, and greatly appreciated, this compassion.
But human nature is unprepared to handle unlimited sympathy and unquestioned support. Some people with the most devastating 9/11 experiences publicized their losses and experiences. They were quoted in the press. They became subjects of documentaries. They were respected and supported. People listened. No one dared contradict or deny them. This scene became pretty desirable, even addictive.
Notoriety associated with 9/11 is based on victimization and chance. Typically, fame results from hard work or talent, an active accomplishment. But for 9/11 victims, credentials were strictly based on random fates of the day. Participants need only have a story and evoke their emotions. Demonstrate greater victimhood, receive more deference and attention.
Some will object to this characterization, recalling the many heroic stories of people who gave their lives to help others. There were many heroes on 9/11. There are many heroes in smaller disasters. But the vocal 9/11 family is primarily comprised of victims, or close relatives of victims. To my knowledge, none of the active 9/11 advocates can claim to be a hero. They are brothers, sisters or parents of people who died. They are people who witnessed death. They may have even feared for their own lives. They are people who have been empowered by events in which they played no active role.
Rudy Giuliani is the archetype of 9/11 sympathy syndrome. Rudy scrambled around helplessly looking for cover like everyone else. He was similarly baffled and confused. In the months after 9/11, he was primarily a W.T.C. tour guide to the rich and powerful and a public mourner. He became the “world’s mayor” by staying close to the center of sympathy. He has run on the fuel of 9/11 emotions ever since.
There are people who used the notoriety of their losses on 9/11 to actively help others. Instead of making demands, they started charities that reached beyond their personal losses. “Let Us Do Good” Children’s Foundation sponsors the annual “Tunnel to Tower Run,” which ends with a street party in Battery Park City. The proceeds support Burn Centers around the nation in honor of firefighter Stephen Siller and his fellow firemen. Sally Goodrich raised money to open a girls school in Afghanistan. Another family started an organization to provide psychological support to disaster areas. The “Jersey Girls” pushed for the 9/11 Commission to prevent the next disaster. The people behind these causes are heroes. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the W.T.C. plans to recognize efforts like these.
On the other hand, the 9/11 activists most visible to the greater public have focused on what they themselves need to atone for their loss and suffering. They are regularly in the press with demands, stating the latest cause for their suffering. Because they have rarely been denied, they regularly elevate their expectations.
In one of the first W.T.C. public comment sessions, a father of a fireman killed on 9/11 asked that people respect the W.T.C. site as a graveyard until the recovery was completed. With time, his expectations escalated. In a later meeting with residents, he demanded that the footprints of the Twin Towers and the hotel be left undeveloped from bedrock to the sky forever. The activists have settled into a life where they replay their victimization on cue. They continue to get sympathy and deference. They expand their demands.
A Downtown Express article told the story of a volunteer tour guide for the W.T.C. Tribute Center. She limits her tours so that she can remain passionate. Her passion is to re-experience the pain of a day six years ago for an audience. People who play this emotional tape receive an outpouring of sympathy from tourists. Tourists come seeking their own emotional W.T.C. experience to take home. Downtown has been a center of exchange for centuries. There is a new type of unstated exchange that takes place between tourist and victim. But is it healthy expression of humanity or a complex emotional addiction?
People still show up at meetings to ensure that their pain and loss is reflected in every single development at the W.T.C. They demand that the lessons of 9/11 be remembered; lessons seldom articulated and never agreed upon. They want the attention and sympathy that has defined their post-9/11 lives. Is it such a surprise if a woman lied to become part of this victim-based empowerment?
Six years ago, I got involved in the Downtown community and in W.T.C. affairs knowing that the disaster of 9/11 would demand a great effort to be overcome. I have organized community organizations, spoken at public events, and served on Lower Manhattan Development Corp. advisory committees. But I am reluctant to tell my story, to replay my emotions to strangers, or to use them in support of causes. I base my advocacy on reason, my knowledge of Downtown and my familiarity with the businesses and lives of fellow residents. The need for public comment on W.T.C. issues has lasted far longer than I expected. Broader public opinion now accepts that it is past time for the city to move forward, but W.T.C. meetings are still infected with a punishing negativity by people invested in perpetuating the agony 9/11.
To overcome does not imply that we deny, forget or dishonor 9/11. To overcome is to be bigger than what was done to us, to express our dignity when others sought our humiliation. It is getting to a place where we can remember and respect what happened and those we lost without fear. It requires human connections far deeper than the exchange of pain for sympathy with strangers.
I wanted to help this community and this city move forward, to be part of a collective effort to rise above tragedy. I wanted to honor the lost by demonstrating that we could rise above the acts of terrorism. As the city recovers and life returns to more normal and predictable patterns, some people have chosen to remain in the smoking ruins of the W.T.C. The natural response is to try to help them, but they are vested in their 9/11 pain. They like what they get from being a 9/11 victim. One person may have even lied to join them.
David Stanke lives and writes in Downtown Manhattan. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.