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Vol. LXIV, No. 26
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
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“We Were a Stand-In for the Nation’s Grief”: Nikki Stern Talks About Moral Authority

Ellen Gilbert

“I wasn’t just a widow,” said author and Princeton resident Nikki Stern in a recent appearance at Labyrinth Books. “I was a 9/11 widow.”

Ms. Stern’s husband, Jim Potorti, to whom she had been married for 11 years, was killed during the World Trade Center attacks. Ms. Stern’s new book, Because I Say So, describes the consequent perception of families touched by that tragedy as somehow being morally superior to those who remained unscathed.

Writing in the New York Review of Books on “The Joys and Perils of Victimhood” several years ago, Ian Buruma recalled what might be seen as a related episode. This one concerned the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking. “In an interview about her celebrity,” Mr. Buruma wrote, “Chang related how a woman came up to her in tears after a public reading and said that Chang’s account of the massacre had made her feel proud to be Chinese-American. It seems,” observed Mr. Buruma, “a very peculiar source of pride.”

A similar disdain for the higher ground granted to those who are touched by tragedy informs Because I Say So.

“We were a stand-in for the nation’s grief,” observed Ms. Stern, describing the media’s penchant for “making heroes” out of those who lost family members in the 9/11 attacks. Beyond the assumption of heroic stature, Ms. Stern adds, was the conferral of a kind of sanctity, a sense that these families were “more virtuous” than ordinary people. Her book’s subtitle, “The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority,” reflects her discomfort with this inflated perception.

“I never believed that my loss entitled me to special influence,” said Ms. Stern, noting that as early as 2004 she asked the media to “back off” in a piece she wrote for Newsweek magazine. She also pointed to the irony of how a “war on terrorism” led to “preemptive intervention,” and the sense that responding to 9/11 began to seem “less about being moral, and more about being right.” This certainty about being right, she added, is often manifested today as “mean-spirited ‘gotcha’ moments” engaged in by talk radio and cable television hosts. “Asking people to review long-held beliefs seems impossible,” she observed.

Published by Bascom Hill, Because I Say So has received positive reviews from a variety of sources. Christopher Kojm, former deputy director of the 9/11 Commission described it as a “lively and thought-provoking look at moral authority. Nikki Stern writes with clarity, grace, and honesty. Her unblinking account deserves our attention.”

“What a thoughtful and refreshing rejection of the various bad habits of narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness, self-pity, self-indulgence, free-floating rage that drives today’s awful frenzy of self-righteousness in our national conversation,” said public radio host Kurt Anderson of the book. “Nikki Stern is a model of the even-keeled grace, tolerance, and common sense that Americans need to rediscover.”

Before her husband’s death Ms. Stern worked as a public relations executive. In 2003, she became executive director of Families of September 11, a national organization for families affected by the terrorist attacks. In 2005, she and the group won an award from Search for Common Ground for their outreach efforts to members of the Muslim community.

In response to an audience member’s question about whether she had been a philosophy major in college, Ms. Stern said no, she began as a musician. Her father, she added, had been a lawyer.

Despite her dim view of the public’s presumption that people who have experienced tragedy are somehow “more virtuous,” Ms. Stern doesn’t think “we’re lost.” She described how “writing was a search for me for how I was going to live my life,” and how “uncertainty and hope allow me to keep my eyes open.” She pointed to the importance of “review, of asking questions like ‘what is good; what is right; and what has changed’” in the context of any decision-making.

This perspective may have its limits, however. Ms. Stern did not agree with another audience member who suggested that her description of a judicious thinker fits President Barack Obama, and that current accusations that he is less than assertive may be unjust. Apparently Ms. Stern is among those who long for stronger leadership; she promptly dismissed the idea of Obama as a “reviewer,” noting the need, instead, for “reassurance that we’re not drowning.”

Ms. Stern’s website can be found at

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