NEW YORK — In some of the nation's most wounded days, it became a deeply personal, wrenchingly public and wholly uncharted identity: "Sept. 11 family member."
Many who lost loved ones in the terror attacks felt themselves driven, or pushed, to become symbols of a country's anguish — an unsought status so freighted that one widow recently wrote that she was "quitting 9/11."
But for others, it is still the emotional equivalent of a full-time job. In the decade since the attacks, some have weighed in publicly on issues that rippled out from ground zero to a mosque proposed nearby, civilian trials for terror suspects, police radios, Osama bin Laden's burial at sea and other issues, even as a strain of public sentiment questions why they haven't moved on.
Anthony Gardner is quick to point out that he feels the attacks affected everyone. Yet he realizes that others see him and other victims' relatives as sitting atop a hierarchy of Sept. 11 sorrow. He remembers prevailing on a woman to continue recounting her memories of the attacks after she abruptly stopped, having learned that his brother Harvey died at the trade center.
But as much as Gardner might not want that special status, it gave him, at 25, an unexpected voice in public affairs. He helped lead a push to preserve the twin towers' footprints and started an organization that developed a Sept. 11 curriculum now used in a few thousand schools. Those projects stirred his interest in history, leading the former corporate communications staffer to graduate school and a new career as head of the New Jersey State Museum. One of his first projects there has been planning an exhibit surrounding the attacks' 10th anniversary.
He'd like to think the families' activism carries a message beyond their causes.
"I hope that people look at this and understand that they could do something similar in their own lives and have an impact on things they care about," he says. "Regardless of whether they have a loss in their life or not."
Like it or not, relatives' willingness to bare their grief and rage has shaped the shadow of Sept. 11, influencing everything from the analysis of intelligence and security failures that enabled the attacks to what is, and is not, being built at the World Trade Center site. But beyond specific projects, the families have, perhaps, changed a broader cultural conversation about victims, the bereaved and their role in defining the legacy of catastrophe.
From the start, Sept. 11 victims' families were an unmistakably public part of the narrative of the attacks, posting fliers and toting family photos they implored television reporters to broadcast in hopes of locating loved ones.
They soon became, in the media and sometimes in their own words, not "attack victims' relatives" but "9/11 families."
It's convenient shorthand that also places them at the emotional center of the tragedy and suggests their loss makes them victims, too, an idea enshrined in the crime victims' rights movement. Advocates often refer to relatives as "secondary victims."
The Sept. 11 families' public presence has built openness to talking about loss, crisis and recovering, says Elisabeth Schaefer-Wuensche, an American studies scholar affiliated with Germany's University of Bonn, which is holding an upcoming conference on the attacks' aftermath.
But, she said, "speaking from a victim's position as a single, long-term, defining platform does entail problems."
The 2001 attacks came amid ambivalence about the status and meaning of victimhood. While the rights movement gave victims a new prominence in the criminal justice system, some politicians and pundits were decrying "victimism," or what they saw as people in the culture at refusing to take responsibility for problems in the culture at large, notes Alyson M. Cole, a Queens College political science professor and the author of "The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror," published in 2007.
As the war on terror became a defining issue of President George W. Bush's administration, "the families of 9/11 were in fact privileged victims," Cole said by email.
But to Diane Horning, who became outspoken on issues related to Sept. 11 victims' remains after losing her son, Matthew, "the willingness to go public has had opposing ramifications" — on one hand encouragement and admiration, on the other criticism that the families' public exposure is unseemly and attention-seeking.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter derided four trade center widows known as the Jersey Girls in a 2006 book, saying she had "never seen people enjoying their husbands' death so much." Another conservative pundit, Glenn Beck, said in 2005 that he wished some victims' relatives would "shut up." ''They're always complaining, and we did our best for them."
Plenty of others spurn such views as insensitive. Still, the push-and-pull of public attitudes toward Sept. 11 victims' families came to grate on Nikki Stern. She got involved in 9/11-related causes after her husband, James Potorti, died at the trade center. But she said on her blog in July that she was "quitting 9/11."
Stern was, she wrote, tired of being treated "as if I were a victim or a moral beacon or, God forbid, an opportunist: a symbol of resilience; a receptacle for a nation's fear, anger, resentment and confusion; someone forever defined by one unexpected, violent, and oh so public event."
Ask other 9/11 family members why they stay involved in fraught debates that keep their decade-old loss in the forefront of their lives, and the answer is neither pat nor uniform: because it was a way to channel anger about something they couldn't do anything about into something they could; because other victims' relatives would rather stay silent. Because journalists keep asking. Because they sense the pull of apathy on an event the world said it would never forget. Because the attacks' aftermath has imbued them with frustration about politics and the calculus of power.
Ten years out, 9/11 is still central to Sally Regenhard's life. Her son, Christian, a probationary firefighter and former Marine, was killed at the trade center. Three months later, the former nursing home administrator held her first press conference, pressing for a federal investigation into why the towers weren't able to withstand the impact of the hijacked planes.
Since then, Regenhard has successfully sued to make officials let the public hear tapes of 911 calls from the trade center and pushed to change city building codes to make skyscrapers safer. An emergency-response research center named for her son has been established at a Manhattan college. She has spoken out on a slew of subjects, and not shyly. At a 2004 meeting of the federal commission that investigated the attacks, she made a stir by holding up signs reading "TRUTH" or "LIES" as she saw fit, and shouted at former Mayor Rudy Giuliani that her son "was murdered because of your incompetence!"
Still, Regenhard has mixed feelings about continuing to be a public face of 9/11 grief.
"I want to stop. I really do. It's not a pastime," she said in a recent interview. But "it's very hard to get away from it when so many things are still wrong. ... I want to force the system to live up to their responsibility to protect the public, and it's not being done as well as it should be."
Jim Riches initially didn't stake out a public role as a 9/11 family member after losing his firefighter son Jimmy — then a city Fire Department deputy chief himself, the father was too busy dealing with the attacks' aftermath hands-on. But Riches' anger about problems with firefighters' radios during the attacks boiled over after Giuliani launched his 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Riches got enmeshed in other issues. He traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2009 to observe a military tribunal's pretrial hearings of admitted Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Riches opposed the mosque planned near ground zero, comparing it to putting "a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor."
He realizes his experience is at once extraordinary and common; his private bereavement that of many parents, his public place that of a Sept. 11 family member.
"I guess a lot of other people say, 'I lost my son, too,'" Riches says. "But they're always paying attention because it was 9/11."