Sombre expressions are the exception at zoo-like 9/11 memorial.
New York City - It doesn't take me long to realize I've been lying to myself about why I'm here at Ground Zero on the 9/11 anniversary.
I thought I felt compelled to come because, as an American (though born and raised in Toronto), I haven't felt as emotionally invested in the tragedy as maybe I should have. My mother died about a year before the Twin Towers fell, and NYC was her hometown. The city's permanent alteration would have deeply affected her. I want it to affect me, too.
It would be nice to see the World Trade Centre site, at least for a day, as less an ideological landscape and more an actual place where 3,000 people died. Oh, I am so naive.
When I arrive in the financial district, the scene reminds me of New Year's Eve, although in this case, people are pushed up against each other not to watch a shiny ball fall, but to see literally nothing.
Only the victims' families are allowed close enough to see the enormous hole in the ground where the towers once stood.
The closest the rest of us can get is a bank plaza across the street. Realizing how trying a day this is going to be, I go to the nearby Burger King to get a coffee. There, on a television screen, I can quite comfortably see the ceremony along with the skeletal foundations of the eventually to be built Freedom Tower.
If I'd stayed there long enough, I would have seen Barack Obama and John McCain make their brief appearance together. As it turns out, I end up watching the presidential hopefuls on a TV in the window of the Thomas Reuters building.
They're just blocks away, but I might as well have been in Toronto.
Next comes the growing realization that being at Ground Zero today is really not about remembering. A lot of people are here to attract attention to themselves or to a specific agenda. They carry provocative signs like "9/11 an Inside Job" or "Nobama" or wear bizarre costumes like the man in oversized star-spangled glasses and a clock, Flavour Flav-style, bearing the words "Support our Troops."
The rest of us, I fear, aren't here to reflect on the tragedy either. We seem less interested in who and what was lost and more in witnessing how the tragic can be expressed in spectacular or provocative ways that are, if nothing else, American.
The vendors hawking "We will never forget" pins or Obama T-shirts are really no different from the other performers/provocateurs in this plaza. Whether exchanging theatrics for attention or merchandize for cash, these are consumer-oriented opportunists.
An exception, perhaps, is the Mennonite youth choir from Russell, Massachusetts, singing hymns as congregation members hand out pamphlets exhorting us to "Love your enemies."
I'm refreshed by the sanity and simplicity of this message, but disappointed when I ask congregant Dwight Derstine if it means one has to be a Christian.
"Loving Jesus," he tells me "is the only way to love your enemies."
A Brooklyn resident stands silently behind a placard reading, "Where is Osama bin Laden?" But the sombreness of her message is no match for the display around her, like the guy nearby with a sign claiming that he (somehow) prevented a plane on 9/11 from blowing up the Metlife building.
I want her desire for justice to somehow be compatible with Derstine's, or rather Jesus', decree to love your enemies. But more than that, I want to be as interested in these earnest expressions as I am in the surrounding circus.
Is this involuntary preference for spectacle over sincerity, which so many of us share, responsible for the absurd drama here today? Are the disgusting - or pitiable (some here are clearly mentally ill) - theatrics just giving me, us, what we really want?
I leave the bank plaza feeling that all present - spectator and provocateur, activist and vendor - are in our way trying and failing to answer a more important question than "Where is bin Laden?" That is, why is it so difficult to express grief with honesty and integrity?
But, then, how could we possibly know how to do so in a culture where the market decides the value of everything and sorrow is accordingly worthless?