911: Issues of Immediacy

So it’s the day after Memorial Day. Seems like a good time to talk about memorializing things. And, since the 911 Museum opened on May 12th and everyone is talking about it, I’m going to talk about it, too.

Part shrine, part memorial, part capitalist monument.
Part shrine, part memorial, part capitalist monument, part retroactive justification.

So this blog entry is inspired by the BuzzFeed article a lot of you probably saw, The Worst Day of my Life is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction.

In the article, Steve Kandell talks about his experience walking through the new museum space. And he expresses a lot of the thoughts that I have had about the 9/11 attacks in the 13 years following them. Chief among them is this:

The exhibition starts with one shining, unfathomably terrible morning and winds up as all of our lives, as banal and constant as laundry, bottomless. I can feel the sweat that went into making this not seem tacky, of wanting to show respect, but also wanting to show every last bit of carnage and visceral whomp to justify the $24 price of admission — vulgarity with the noblest intentions.

Vulgarity with the noblest intentions. That basically sums up my feelings about the 911 tragedy nearly 13 years after it occurred. The constant pouring over of tapes and photos and facts and figures until it’s gotten to the point where I just feel so numb to it all. There’s that new phrase “compassion fatigue” that’s used to talk about how we are faced with so much horribleness in the world that it’s hard to care anymore. And I feel something similar to that when it comes to the 911 tragedy. But mixed in there is also this sense of guilt at ever having bought into the syrupy patriotic Kool Aid of 911 hysteria and the whole War On Terror thing. I still get grossed out by the lingering weird brand of patriotism that came out of it which equates fanatical devotion to America with goodness and continues to make me really, really nervous.

The kind of patriotism that leads to Islamaphobic groups like this one protesting the Mosque near Ground Zero.
The kind of patriotism that leads to Islamaphobic groups like this one protesting the Islamic community center near Ground Zero.

Anyway, in his article for Buzz Feed, Steve talks about how he couldn’t find the indignation that had driven him to attend the opening by the time he got the gift shop. And that’s what a lot of the outrage towards the museum has centered around. As if tchotchkes are the problem. The “crass commercialism” that they are objecting to is the way that the museum keeps the lights on. It’s what every museum does, even other museums that are dedicated to tragedies. I can’t bring myself to feel righteously indignant about it, honestly.

Personally, I think the problem is the existence of the museum itself. And I’m not against museums built to memorialize and educate about tragedies. Not in the least. I have been to several Holocaust museums and felt deeply moved by them.

That said, I’m going to deviate here for a moment and talk about an experience that I had in order to contextualize my input into the whole 911 Museum thing. I really felt for Steve, walking alone through the museum amidst the survivors, feeling raw and exposed. I had a similar experience back in 2008 when I went to the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

I couldn’t bring myself to go to a camp. Something about that was just too horrifying, too gory for me. The museum offered me the opportunity to see for myself some of the realities of what happened without having to feel pornographically exposed.

Three axes: The axis of exile, the axis of continuity, and the axis of the Holocaust.
Three axes: The axis of exile, the axis of continuity, and the axis of the Holocaust.

I went there alone. And as I walked down the various axes built into the basement of the new Liebskind building, I felt the cold pressing against me and glanced into portals along the walls that held jeweled earrings of a girl who died in Auschwitz, letters that were never delivered, stuffed animals and glassware and little memories held behind glass from people who should have had full and healthy lives. And I cried. Alone, surrounded by strangers, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my cheeks.

Standing on a 45 degree angle, walking through the exile garden requires you to navigate between massive pillars.
Standing on a 45 degree angle, walking through the Exile Garden requires you to navigate between massive pillars.

I found my way into the Exile Garden and tried to understand how it must have felt for German Jews to be pushed from their homes into foreign nations. These people who thought of themselves as Germans. How did they feel?

The Holocaust Tower. No room has ever been this cold and empty.
The Holocaust Tower. No room has ever been this cold and empty.

The Holocaust Tower, with it’s massive, smooth walls, the ladder standing just out of reach, muffled conversations filtering through the walls, and a light that fails to illuminate, far off in the distance… I went in there alone. And I felt a cold and bitter isolation as I was sealed off with the silent slamming of the door behind me.

The whole building is designed to stand as a monument to those who are gone. Liebskind built into the museum “memory voids” that stand for the societal presence of the 6 million Jewish people killed in Europe during the war. It is filled with moments that let one experience the tactile sensation of a community grappling with loss. And it ends with the old museum, which gives the visitor the opportunity to learn more about Jewish history and culture in Europe and gives one a sense of closure.

Menashe Kadishman, Installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves), 1997-2001
Menashe Kadishman, Installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves), 1997-2001

The differences between the Jewish Museum and the 911 museum are myriad, but the chief one has to do with the passage of time. There is an immediacy that accompanies the 911 attack that doesn’t apply to the Holocaust. And maybe that’s just a matter of era. There were no cell phones in 1945. No 24 hour news channels. No pundits. As such, the process of grieving and recognizing the need to remember unfolded naturally over several decades. So the families of the people that the Jewish Museum was built for are, for the most part, long dead. And those who weren’t dead when the museum opened in 2001 were far enough removed from the tragedy, I would imagine, to see the museum as a memorial rather than being offended at the opportunism or capitalism of the thing.

So while I could barely handle walking through the Jewish Museum by myself as a non-Jewish person nearly 60 years after the Holocaust, I can’t even begin to imagine how Steve must have felt, walking through a building that likely holds his sister’s remains. He clearly doesn’t know how to feel about the space set aside as a sanctuary for families, either:

The presence of the tomb has been a point of contention among families more vocal than ours who want more from a final resting place than the basement of this museum of unnatural history. I don’t know how to feel about the matter because to do so would require any of this making even a bit of sense. It’s dumb, sure, but what could possibly be less dumb? Where is the right place to store pounds of unidentifiable human tissue so that future generations can pay their respects? I would not wish what’s happened to my family on anyone, but I begrudgingly admire its infinite weirdness, still, after all this time.

The issue, as I said, comes down to being one of immediacy. Staring into the gory mouth of the senseless tragedy of 911 can only do so much. And I worry about what effect it really has when we pour over it so deeply and to the exclusion of so much else.

But anyway.

The fact of the matter is that we have been memorializing and witnessing for and trying to get a better look at the tragedy since the day it happened.

A few short weeks after, David Rockwell built a viewing platform for people to come and see what he called a “16 acre burial ground.” It was made of plywood and never intended to be permanent. People covered it with pictures and writing. In a very real way, that platform was a focal point for the grief of families and friends.

Much later in the game, the 911 Memorial was designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker. Titled “Reflecting Absence,” it is a beautiful testament to the buildings that once stood in that 16 acre space. And to the lives that were lost there.The names of 2,983 victims are inscribed on 76 bronze plates attached to the parapet walls that form the edges of the Memorial pools. I could not imagine a  more fitting tribute.

Reflecting Absence
As seen from above as of 2012. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Additionally, because we could not leave the space where the buildings once stood vacant, Daniel Libeskind (in a weird coincidence, the same guy that designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin) was selected to design the new World Trade Center buildings. And they are also beautiful. One World Trade Center, the first of the buildings to be finished, is the tallest building in America as well as one of the safest. When finished, they will fill the hole in the skyline elegantly, I think.

So after all that, why build a museum? If you have a place designed specifically for remembrance and you have buildings to show that the terrorists didn’t beat us, then why do you need the museum on top of all that?

Honestly, the creation of the museum itself smacks to me of the same sort of instinct that leads us to slow down alongside car crashes. It gives everyone an opportunity to get a good look at the body inside the twisted metal. And maybe we do that because we want to be reassured that we aren’t dead. And maybe we do it because humans are inherently morbid. I don’t know. But, for me, I can’t stop thinking that it’s gross the way that we have wrapped up the deaths of so many people in a red-white-and-blue bow in this museum. I think the memorializing was already done before this place existed. And I also think that it’s too late for us to really protest. What’s done is done, and it was going to be built anyway, no matter how loudly anyone spoke to the contrary.

How many memorials is too many? That's really my final question.
How many memorials is too many? That’s really my final question.

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