The National September 11 Memorial, New York City / Photograph: John Sonderman

In late May 2002 the fifty-eight-ton steel column was shrouded with black cloth, covered in an enormous American flag, and lowered onto a specially made truck bed. Its journey was accompanied by a slow procession of emergency workers and officials, a dirge of bagpipes, and trumpeters playing “Taps.” The removal of the column marked the end of eight and a half months of recovery work, in which several billion pounds of debris and human remains were removed from the wreckage of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. At the time, a coalition of victims’ families—WTC Families for a Proper Burial—was protesting the removal of the site’s ash, mud, and metal to the Fresh Kills landfill, where forensics experts poured over it to extricate the remains. Against this backdrop, the ceremony of the column’s removal served as a kind of proxy funeral.

May 2002 was the month that my parents and I moved from uptown Manhattan to a former bank building on Wall Street. We had been lured by the rent abatements that Michael Bloomberg, the new mayor, offered to spur development in Lower Manhattan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. My parents and I sometimes shared the subway with 9/11 clean-up workers, their clothes and boots stained with the ash and dust that would later be found to cause chronic respiratory illness as well as cancer. Our apartment was a block and a half away from the New York Stock Exchange, thought to be a likely future terrorism target. Police toting assault rifles and submachine guns patrolled our block; large metal barriers had been embedded in the street to stop truck bombs.

Our apartment was also five blocks away from Ground Zero. I often found myself at the perimeter of the site. I vaguely remember the walls with faded sheets memorializing the missing and the vendors selling t-shirts and keepsakes with the American flag superimposed on images of the towers. I never actively visited the site, though—never attempted to survey the gash in the earth through Plexiglas—a fact that seems remarkable to me now. I did often give directions to Ground Zero to disoriented tourists. I felt mildly contemptuous of those visitors, a feeling that was shared by most of the New Yorkers I knew, many of whom refuse to visit the site to this day. Among the flyers from that period, now preserved at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, is a February 2002 fax petition—“Should Ground Zero Become a Tourist Attraction?”—that argues against opening the site while the sense of loss was still so raw.

America struggles with bereavement. We are better at rebuilding than at remembering, better at retribution than at mourning.

When I first began to revisit the initial coverage of 9/11, I thought doing so might be a way to dig down into the essential and, it seems to me, incomplete work of mourning the day’s victims, work that is often eclipsed by the open wounds of the War on Terror. I think back on the ad hoc nature of the site at that time—the vendors in the streets and the cranes towering in the air—and wonder what space could have possibly held the grief that followed the attacks. I now see in those tourists an impulse to mourn.

Fifteen years after 9/11, the tragedy still seems to cast forth questions about how to mourn on a civic or national scale. New York’s skyline is altered, the glassy blue Freedom Tower taller than the Twin Towers it replaces. Millions of visitors have streamed through the National September 11 Memorial and Museum since it opened in May 2014. Memorial parks, plaques, and statues in tribute to local dead have been erected throughout the five boroughs of New York City and in suburbs across the tri-state area. Some images, such as those of people falling from the towers or covered in dust, have become iconic. More specific images are seared into the consciousness of the people who were in or near New York City at the time. That morning was my second day at a high school in Brooklyn Heights, across the harbor from the towers. We were evacuated to the basement when the first plane struck. When I emerged outside, the whitish haze of incinerated glass and metal obscured the streets and a sharp nostril-stinging smell hung in the air.

Contemporary American culture struggles with bereavement; in every way possible we seek to sanitize and avoid the experience of death. We are better at rebuilding than at remembering, better at retribution than at mourning. There is no better example of this than the official response to 9/11. Speaking at the crash site of one of the hijacked airplanes in rural Pennsylvania on the afternoon of September 11, Governor Tom Ridge said, “There’s nobody that’s claimed . . . responsibility for these acts. Whether they do or not, we will find them.” By early October he had been sworn in as director of the new Office of Homeland Security. The consequences linger to this day in policy and political rhetoric about terrorism. The emotions of collective bereavement called forth by September 11 have rippled out to the tragedies that succeeded it. I find myself wondering what rituals and what words might have changed the public experience of grief.

In 1967 the sociologist Robert Bellah published an influential essay on what he called civil religion, the shared rites and ideas that bind a people together as a nation. He argued that American civil religion “has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.” For Bellah the two crucial, defining moments for U.S. civil religion had come during “times of trial”: the country’s founding, which introduced civic rituals such as presidential inaugurations; and the Civil War, when “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the civil religion,” out of which arose Memorial Day and national cemeteries such as Arlington, where the military dead of every subsequent conflict have been interred (built, quite pointedly, on the former estate of Robert E. Lee).

Writing in the late sixties, Bellah wondered how the trials of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War would “precipitate . . . new symbolic forms.” The question could just as well be asked of 9/11, the largest loss of life on American soil since the Civil War. In ways both choreographed and improvised, 9/11 has entered America’s civil religion as something to be memorialized and avenged—more often the latter than the former.

In many ways, September 11 was singular: nearly three thousand people, mostly civilians going about their day, killed—incinerated, crushed, vaporized—in the space of two and a half hours. In other ways, the tragedy seems emblematic; the absences and obsessions of how we grieved, instructive. In an era of mass shootings, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks, how to grieve these kinds of death seems just as vital a question as how to prevent them. Perhaps we need to learn how to accord such victims the kind of public, shared memorialization and grief that past generations accorded to the military dead.

• • •

After the first explosion Gilbert Richard Ramirez went to the windows of his twentieth-floor office at the World Trade Center. He told a reporter from TIME that he “saw the debris falling, and sheets of white building material, and then something else. . . . The features were indistinguishable as it fell: the body was black, apparently charred.” He ushered coworkers toward the smoky stairs, saying, “Breathe, breathe, Christ is on our side, we’re gonna get out of here.” They passed others from higher floors whose skin was grayed and peeling from burns. One woman told him that a gust had sucked her friend out of a high window. They passed first responders, making their way to the upper floors with heavy emergency gear. When they finally got outside, the ground was already littered with the smashed corpses of people who had jumped or fallen.

Every time I looked up at the building, somebody was jumping from it. . . . There was one, and then another one. I couldn’t understand their jumping. I guess they couldn’t see any hope.

Ramirez was interviewed for TIME’s special issue on the disaster, which went to press less than three days after the attacks. Bordered in black and containing no advertisements, the issue was at once reportage and memorial. I take such coverage to be a seismograph of some of the concerns of the time: what was written in the immediate aftermath, before stances could harden or be modified, shows what words and concepts first came to hand in reckoning with tragedy. Such early coverage also shaped the way the attacks were thought of. In 2001 TIME had more than 4 million subscribers in the United States alone, making the issue one of the most widely read accounts of the disaster. The issue is mostly composed of a long, single narrative of the day. Nancy Gibbs, then senior editor, compiled reports from the magazine’s nationwide staff, shaping them into a single 9,600-word opus. The powerful narrative is a mess of spiritual and martial metaphors. It begins:

If you want to humble an empire it makes sense to maim its cathedrals. They are symbols of its faith, and when they crumple and burn, it tells us we are not so powerful and we can’t be safe. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center . . .  are the sanctuaries of money and power that our enemies may imagine define us. But that assumes our faith rests on what we can buy and build, and that has never been America’s true God.

Those words invoke the same powerful but denuded American God Bellah identified in presidential inaugural addresses, derived from Christianity but stripped of the texture of any specific tradition, an emblem of the collective nation at its most idealistic and fearsome. There is a sense throughout the article that religious imagery and language alone possess the requisite heft for making sense of what has happened—making it into something meaningful or, at least, fathomable. A section on the hijacked planes opens, “Only God knows what kind of heroic acts took place at 25,000 feet as passengers contended with four teams of highly trained enemy terrorists.” The towers are repeatedly likened to cathedrals—after their collapse, for example, “the atrium lobby arches looked like a bombed out cathedral.” The article’s ending returns to this image:

Once the dump trucks and bulldozers have cleared away the rubble and a thousand funeral Masses have been said, once the streets are swept clean of ash and glass and the stores and monuments and airports reopen, once we have begun to explain this to our children and to ourselves, what will we do? What else but build new cathedrals, and if they are bombed, build some more. Because the faith is in the act of building, not the building itself, and no amount of terror can keep us from scraping the sky.

“A thousand funeral masses” is fine shorthand for an article written when recovery workers were still searching for bodies in the smoldering wreck of the towers. One of the greatest challenges of grieving the dead had not yet come into focus: intact, identifiable corpses would prove to be almost entirely absent from the site. I sometimes wonder if this lack of bodies is part of what deranged the mourning process not just on a personal but on a national level, allowing the deaths to too swiftly become symbolic. Imagine how different the recovery would have been if there had been thousands of bodies to transport and bury instead of Ground Zero’s hecatomb of crushed body parts and incinerated flesh, glass, and metal. In October 2001 the families of the dead received folded American flags and small burnished wood urns containing earth and ash from the site. In the decade following the disaster, only 60 percent ever received confirmation that their loved one’s remains had been identified. Pictures of people falling became iconic not only as images of the towers’ destruction, but also because they encapsulated how many of the disaster’s victims vanished into air.

What does the fact that anger and retribution proved more unifying than sorrow say about our country?

In the immediate wake of the attacks, one of the most moving of the memorials to the dead was The New York Times’ series that would come to be known as “Portraits of Grief.” The earliest profiles began running the weekend after 9/11. The reporters, who selected people from missing posters, did not assume at first that their subjects were dead, though over subsequent weeks the tone shifted to that of remembrance and bereavement. Each short profile singles out some poignant defining details of the person’s life, a cenotaph in newsprint.

They are heartbreaking. “God is giving me something because he took something away,” Daniel Affilitto’s widow, who had just found out she was pregnant, told the Times. Sonia Ortiz, an elevator operator from Colombia, appeared in photographs for the missing “dressed demurely in her work outfit—white blouse, black tie—and holding a Spanish language book about life after death.” The subject had fascinated her since her twenty-six-year-old son died of a brain aneurysm. David Rivers didn’t work in the World Trade Center, but his company was having a conference there that morning at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the north tower’s top floor. “Our son James, who is 5 years old, asks ‘Why did Daddy have to be there that day?’ And I can’t answer him,” his wife told the paper. Susan Getzendanner, a finance vice president, studied Buddhism in her spare time and traveled the world. Stephen Adams, beverage manager at Windows on the World, was a devotee of an English folk dance in which participants brandish sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs. Jose Marrero, a facilities manager, bought a pigeon coop for his family in New Jersey, hoping one day to race pigeons as he had during his Brooklyn childhood.

When the profiles were published as a book, the foreword and introduction recounted the thousands of letters and emails the Times received in response to the series. Some readers wrote that in the weeks and months after the attacks, the profiles became part of a mourning ritual: “Reading these portraits is my act of Kaddish,” Pamela Mann, a Manhattan lawyer, wrote. But the “Portraits of Grief” always ran inside the paper, appearing at the end of the section titled “Nation in Crisis.” Headlines about terrorism and military action increasingly dominated the front pages.

• • •

It can be tempting to imagine that there was a moment of grief and solidarity that was politicized—that turned ugly—only later. Revisiting what was said or written mere days after the attacks dispells any such illusion. War and vengence were immediately invoked. Revisiting the reporting in that TIME issue is a reminder that, only days after the attack, there was already talk of enemy terrorists and a declaration of war:

The blasts were so powerful that counterterrorism teams have begun asking the airlines for fuel loads on the plane; aviation experts have been asked to calculate the explosive yield of each blast—in kiloton terms. The reason? Washington wants to see if the planes amounted to weapons of mass destruction.

In the wake of the attacks, George W. Bush declared September 14, 2001, a national day of prayer and remembrance. That day, a service was held at the Washington National Cathedral and later that afternoon, Bush stood on the rubble in Lower Manhattan, flanked by firemen. Through a bullhorn, he addressed the assembled volunteers, rescue workers, and reporters: “America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn.” Someone in the crowd yelled, “I can’t hear you!” to which Bush yelled back: “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

That contrast between spoken mourning and shouted retribution seems emblematic of how swiftly grief was subsumed by vengeance after 9/11. Suspending all the political particulars of the time, there is the fact that many people’s initial reaction to all the deaths was fury. A troubling op-ed appeared on the back page of the TIME issue as a coda to the reporting. “The Case for Rage and Retribution,” by award-winning essayist Lance Morrow, opens with an indictment of the self-help rhetoric of secular approaches to loss, dismissing “grief counselors,” “fatuous rhetoric about healing,” “Prozac-induced forgetfulness,” and “corruptly thoughtful relativism.” Instead, Morrow writes:

Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa. A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.

As the bodies are counted, into the thousands and thousands, hatred will not, I think, be a difficult emotion to summon. Is the medicine too strong? Call it, rather, a wholesome and intelligent enmity. . . . Anyone who does not loathe the people who did these things, and the people who cheer them on, is too philosophical for decent company.

Though Morrow doesn’t directly mention God, a wrathful and retributive cosmology, in which only bloodshed can slake bloodshed, pervades Morrow’s righteous call to retaliation. His one overt scriptural reference is to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Lot and his family are warned not to look back at the burning city. “[I]n an era of gaudy and gifted media, evil may vastly magnify its damage by the power of horrific images. It is important not to be transfixed,” Morrow admonishes. “The police screamed to the people running from the towers, ‘Don’t look back!’—a biblical warning against the power of the image.” But the hatred Morrow is describing in himself and exhorting in his readers was fed by image. What does the fact that anger and retribution proved more unifying than sorrow say about our “messily tolerant” country?

In a 2014 Atlantic blog post, Jeffrey Goldberg writes of stumbling on a keepsake copy of TIME’s 9/11 issue in his basement. Reading Morrow’s op-ed, he felt appalled—appalled by his own sense of recognition, for he remembers feeling as furious as Morrow, a fury “most people felt at the time.” The observation is borne out by opinion polls taken in the aftermath of 9/11: in a New York Times poll taken less than two weeks after the attacks, 92 percent of respondents said that they thought the United States should take military action against those responsible. Sixty-eight percent of respondents agreed the United States should take military action against those responsible, even if it meant that thousands of innocent people were killed. In a Pew poll, respondents rated punishing the perpetrators almost as highly as preventing future attacks. “Even today,” Goldberg writes, “if I concentrate my mind on images of innocent people throwing themselves from the Twin Towers, I can easily induce anger.” That is why, Goldberg writes, “we should resist the urge to make believe that what the CIA did to some of its detainees . . . reflects poorly on the CIA alone. . . . A policy of focused brutality does, in fact, come easily, even to a self-conscious and self-indulgent country such as ours, if we allow the rage terrorists create in us to shape our behavior.”

Memorializing the dead does not put them to rest; quite the opposite, it disturbs them anew.

For Goldberg the atmosphere that precipitated war and torture was caused by an intellectual and rhetorical failure: “Bad ideas rose to the surface, and found their champions.” Yet something more complicated, and hard to pin down, seems to have been underway as well. Though the treatment of detainees is most notoriously associated with torture methods such as sleep deprivation and water boarding, images of the September 11 attacks and of its victims were also used during interrogations. The log of the interrogation of Guantanamo detainee Mohammad al-Qahtani narrates how he was repeatedly forced to watch videos of the Twin Towers falling. In late November 2002, when a handful of late entries in the “Portraits of Grief” series were appearing in the Times, photographs of the dead were taped to the walls of al-Qahtani’s interrogation room. He was placed on a swivel chair while the sergeants interrogating him rolled him in front of individual photographs of those who died, “focusing on children.” The pictures were taken down and then taped to al-Qahtani’s body in the days that followed. Log entries made during December 2002 note, “Detainee complains about a picture of a 9-11 victim being taped to his trousers,” and “Lead [interrogator] taped picture of 3 year old victim over detainees heart.”

During a period when public concern for the 9/11 dead had been obscured by contentious wars and fresh deaths, there is something especially perverse about the military’s insistent use of images of the victims. Viewed in this light, the opening of the 9/11 museum more than a dozen years after September 11 seems almost like an atonement, its narrative of the attacks and memorialization of the dead a corrective for the ways that public mourning was so often eclipsed and sublimated in the months and years after the attacks.

• • •

In late September 2001, the architect Mark Wagner went down to Ground Zero with a digital camera, tasked with photographing artifacts worth preserving for the construction of a museum: items such as smashed fire trucks and taxis, some almost unrecognizably warped and compressed. Interviewed by The New York Times in January 2002, Wagner recalled being accosted by angry firefighters. “What the hell are you doing? This is a grave site,” they told him. “Our brothers are out there.” He explained that he was there to protect objects for a future archive or memorial: “Pieces of this have to be saved for future generations to understand what has taken place.”

Some of that tension—between educational purpose and the site as sacred ground, the closest we will get to a national cemetery—has continued to dog the rebuilding ever since. When the legacy of 9/11 is at stake, charged, unresolved emotions are never far from the surface. Incensed media coverage of the museum’s 2014 opening bewailed standard accoutrements such as a restaurant (dialed back to a small café), tacky gift shop items (removed), and steep admission prices (typical of many Manhattan museums). Many of my friends who were in New York City during September 11 purposefully avoid ever going. For them, the sight of the Freedom Tower on the skyline is a sufficient reminder of the day and the subsequent fraught, acrimonious decade of debates about how to rebuild the site. When I first visited the area in 2014 after many years away, I found that the space around the memorial had the fortified feeling that I remember from living in Lower Manhattan from 2002 to 2005: big metal barriers in the streets to prevent truck bombs and the ubiquitous presence of police cars. The spiny white spires of the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub, then under construction, looked like a weapon.

But returning a few months later to visit the museum, which has welcomed more than 23 million visitors since it opened, I found myself moved by the somber and impressively researched exhibits, comprised of tens of thousands of artifacts. In the main exhibit hall, visitors can pick up lean, angular black headsets to listen to the last phone call of passengers on the hijacked flights and to the voicemails that accrued over the course of the day on the answering machine of a fireman whose crushed body would be found later that week. The warped, charred metal of a fire truck and a victim’s blood-spattered high heels are on display, along with the cross-shaped rebar under which recovery workers gathered for mass and the wooden viewing platform where visitors scratched messages in ballpoint pen during the months after the disaster. 

The museum is most moving when it takes up the work of collective requiem. In one area, funeral programs are displayed, their dates stretching weeks, months, and even years after the disaster as pieces of hair, flesh, and bone were identified through DNA testing and sent back to families. In the captions to the exhibits, the placement of a white, silhouetted leaf beside a name indicates that the person died on September 11. The museum also serves as a tomb: a part that is closed to the public houses thousands of pieces of dehydrated tissue and unidentified bone fragments recovered from the wreckage.

In a 2011 essay, the art critic Hal Foster wondered whether the memorial and museum can “both rehearse the trauma of the day and help with its assimilation? Might a memorial and a museum be at cross-purposes in this respect?” Perhaps it is true that the museum’s mission of recreating the events while also providing a space for grief is a contradiction. Lingering to take notes at closing time during my two visits, I’ve been approached by soft-spoken, solicitous guards who have told me that admission is free every Tuesday evening, when I can take all the time I need. Short, slim black columns, placed at key points in the main exhibit, hold boxes of tissues, a gesture that can seem disingenuous beside material designed, to some extent, to provoke tears. Certain areas, such as an alcove containing photographs of people jumping and falling from the towers, are marked off by advisory signs that warn of “particularly disturbing content.” What is the purpose of counseling people not to look in a place where they have come to look? Like Lot’s wife, we cannot help ourselves; of course we will look.

The museum took more than a dozen years to open, long after much of the most critical work of mourning had already occurred. I view it less as a place designed to assimilate that grief and trauma than as a place designed to induce it anew, and so perhaps provide a chance to also newly assuage it, like resetting a bone. When I first visited, I was struck by details I had forgotten, or misremembered, like the fact that more than an hour elapsed between the planes striking the towers and the towers’ collapse. For other visitors, the museum will be their first encounter with a tragedy that occurred before they were born or could remember it. On a recent visit, I watched several families bringing children through the exhibits.

Memorializing the dead does not put them to rest; quite the opposite, it disturbs them anew. I believe that Bellah was gesturing toward this fact when he wrote of the civic function of Memorial Day: “a major event for the whole community involving a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision.” Remembering the dead from 9/11, though, is different than remembering those killed in combat. Except in the most politicized narratives, the 9/11 dead are not martyrs but ordinary people. Rather than imparting a spirit of sacrifice, remembering people who died during what started as an ordinary day enshrines our common mortality. To meditate on the way people died rather than on the vexed politics of the era is to open oneself up to the fragile contingencies that shaped who was killed, who escaped, and who had the good fortune to be running late that morning. Dwelling in grief and in the sweet, painful tenuousness of living is harder than assigning blame and calling for action. It is also more unifying.

This kind of grief is still painful more than a decade after the fact. But the real challenge is whether we can do this more immediately, in real time, the next time a massive tragedy occurs: allowing ourselves to dwell in grief together instead of turning grief into a centrifuge that whips us apart.