Hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, drivers began papering their vehicles with American flags. Then they turned toward something more permanent: vanity plates.
Motorists began choosing vanity license plates with numerous variations on the Sept. 11 or World Trade Center theme: 9FDNY11, WTC911, and RMBRWTC.
Now, several legislatures nationwide have begun issuing memorial license plates, with many states proposing to send the proceeds to victims of the attacks.
"It's people in a way circling the wagons, saying we've all got to work together," said Forrest Robinson, a professor of American culture at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
But while the New York Legislature is among those considering a special commemorative plate, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles has placed a moratorium on requests for personalized Sept. 11-related plates -- such as "WTC4EVER" -- citing concern for victims and their families.
"We're definitely taking our time before making any decision related to it, because it was obviously such a tragedy," New York DMV spokesman Matt Burns told the New York Post.
Appropriately, it was the state that's home to the Motor City that first created a Sept. 11 memorial plate, said Michigan Secretary of State Candice Miller. Her staff designed the plate in one afternoon, and it passed the legislature two weeks later.
"It had to be the fastest-moving piece of legislation ever known in the Michigan Legislature," Miller said. The plates benefit the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
R. Dee Woell was one of the first of more than 15,000 Michigan drivers to snap up one of the plates for $35, in addition to the annual registration fee.
Woell, who had never thought she'd get a personalized or vanity license plate, ended up getting both: Her specialized plate is stamped "MIUSA."
Woell's desire to make a statement is part of the ritualizing of Sept. 11 through the American car, said Laura Shamas, who studies the mythological underpinnings of modern culture.
Because vehicles can express someone's personality, putting a memorial plate on your car "is incorporating a wound into your sense of identity," said Shamas, editor of the online magazine headlinemuse.com.
Often, bumper stickers express the full range of political and social opinions in the United States, anything from peace to support or opposition to abortion or gun control.
The patriotic license plates, though, aren't divisive, said Cal Perkins, event coordinator at the Towe Auto Museum in Sacramento. "It's standing behind your country."
Once Michigan began issuing its new plates, Alabama wasn't far behind. Legislators there approved a patriotic license plate that proclaims the driver "Proud To Be An American."
Other states have followed suit.
Since early November, Hawaiian drivers can get plates with a red, white and blue patriotic decal on the left side. Iowans are signing up for a plate featuring a U.S. map emblazoned with stars and stripes, the Statue of Liberty, and the words "God Bless America."
New York's legislature is considering a "World Trade Center Remembrance" license plate with an image of the twin towers, a red, white and blue ribbon and the message "Freedom Stands Tall."
Other states -- including South Carolina, California, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington -- have also made steps toward issuing new patriotic plates.
The first memorial plates date back to at least 1978, when Louisiana and then New Mexico adopted plates honoring prisoners of war, said policy specialist Irene Kawanaba of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Now, every state uses them to raise money for various causes.
Virginia already offers 180 specialty plates touting everything from ham radio operators to bowlers, and may soon offer the nation's largest selection of flag plates. Legislators there may offer three versions, variously reading "God Bless America," "One Nation Under God," and "Proud to be an American."
On the Net:
Michigan DMV: http://www.sos.state.mi.us/frp
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