Reflections on the 9/11 Memorial

By: Rachel Davis

The 9/11 Memorial website, set up to accompany the long-awaited Freedom Tower complex in lower Manhattan, reflects a longing for closure to an event that most Americans cannot seem to let go.1 The primary function of the website, with the five subsections Planning your Visit, Memorial, Museum, Teach+Learn, and Donate+Get Involved, is to help the public chew and digest the incomprehensible manifestation of a phantom menace that was 9/11; to this end, the site, like the Freedom Tower, nevertheless falls just shy of making any definitive statements. Rather, it seeks to promote healing through participatory personal story-telling, along with mythologizing about the day of the event itself.

The section of the site titled "Education Goals," under the main heading Teach+Learn, comes closest to a direct confrontation with the attack's perpetrators. It warns that discussing 9/11 may "trigger strong and even unfamiliar feelings," in oddly bland terms that echo the safety-conscious civil law reforms of the 1990s, as in, "Caution, beverage may be hot." Although its stated goal is the education of late middle and high school students, the text then proceeds to acknowledge both the "unfinished nature of the story" and its "continuing ambiguities." One wonders, what is the purpose of beginning a painful conversation with the assumption that a conclusion, and thus a sense of closure, is impossible to achieve?

The text bounces between obvious sentiments like, "The scale of death and destruction that resulted from 9/11 made Americans feel vulnerable in ways that were new and unfamiliar," and ambiguous questioning that leave definitions and answers up to the imagination: "Acts of terrorism reinforce awareness of communities of difference, heightening a sense of ‘us' versus ‘them.' How can we resist the impulse to view other people stereotypically or as monolithic ‘others'? How can we balance appropriate caution with curiosity about other communities and respect for diversity?"

The reader is left wondering what a "community of difference" might be, and whether we are being directed to define and explore unfamiliar groups of people—or to avoid acknowledging their existence at all. This line of questioning would suggest the latter is preferable: as long as we are able to politely sweep differences under the rug, we should do so. The ostensibly educational discussion for young teens invokes terms like "others" in a sort of pop-academic context, suggesting that the site includes its junior audience as an excuse for its feebleness in addressing the burning questions of an adult audience.2

The questioning then plunges into contradiction, teetering between the complete denial and the complete acceptance of "others:" "We are taught to respect differences, but how should we react to groups whose views are fundamentally antithetical to our own values and ideals? How do we deal with communities of hate?"3 Here the reader discovers a new community, the equally undefined but highly polarized "community of hate," to go along with the "community of difference." In both cases, the questions of what constitutes these "communities" and how we should deal with them are left to dangle. The website's rhetoric, echoed in the architecture of the Freedom Tower and the Memorial structure itself, is, quite naturally, primarily concerned with America's self-image, including healing and issues like diversity and security. But it is precisely from this self-image, and not necessarily the reality of the cataclysm around which the debate centers, that the source of ambiguity stems.

The site shows that what is missing from the history-writing, or "historicizing," of the events of 9/11 is an examination of the attacks from the standpoint of the private citizen, as opposed to the government. This is what philosopher Jacques Rancière was talking about when he said there appeared to be no symbolic break, no conscious distinction, between American culture and identity and American foreign policy (represented by the White House), or American global financial power (represented by the Trade Towers). Instead of distinguishing between the citizen and the government, and taking a close look at the dynamics of global politics and the use of terrorism all over the world today, the broad American reaction was to become more introverted, and more dependent on governmental authority. The familiar tug-of-war between constitutional freedom and personal security shifted strongly in the latter's direction after 9/11.

As the Memorial pilgrim becomes lost in self-examination, al Qaeda fades to the horizon. Missing in the Memorial and new Tower is the true iconography of the previous site. The World Trade Center, the symbol of global finance, American world power by way of monetary and military hegemony, is now the Freedom Tower. The freedom, perhaps, of the free market now, since it is still a financial center. Yet nowhere is there a discussion of economic and political globalization relevant to the Trade Center's creation and, arguably, its demise. The construction of the tower's meaning is more nostalgic, ephemeral, metaphysical. It is as if the old towers, once the architectural embodiment of the market institution of global financial power, have, in their apparent martyrdom, been graced with a sublime aura they did not previously possess. Photographs, presented in a way to evoke nostalgic film slides, show a couple embracing in one frame and graffiti that reads, "fuck Osama" in another, both treated with the same tenderness and respect: the decompartmentalization of emotion under the discipline of an overall righteous aesthetic.4 In the time and space of 9/11, as a discreet moment in history, all American feelings of victimhood, loss, and anger were just and true.

The pervading lesson expounded by U.S. political leaders about 9/11 was that this was a reason for American solidarity and a vindication of American ideals. Al Qaeda was the perfect metaphor for evil's hatred of American goodness. Thus the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were initially framed in terms of the Second World War. 9/11 was analogous to Pearl Harbor. Saddam Hussein and bin Laden embodied the same pure evil as Hitler and Stalin. The United States was once again the victim and the savior, rising in righteous anger.

But the terrorist conflict is not as clean as the nation-state conflict appeared to be. Terrorists exist in a kind of liminal zone outside convention and law, manifested in the vague handling of Guantánamo prisoners: Where should they be tried, what should they be called? Hence the note of caution and of nostalgia in the memorialization of the Trade Towers. Hence the introversion of the narrative. Finally, Americans are not sure who these anti-American people are or what to do about them. They are inexplicable and exasperating, and yet they also conveniently fill the vacant role once played by the Soviet Union of necessary antithesis, against whom in contrast American rectitude is reified.

Even this, however, is too shallow a conclusion. Al Qaeda's intended symbolism in targeting American global finance by attacking the Trade Towers (as opposed to, say, crowded Disney World or hedonist Las Vegas) was apparently completely lost or disregarded in constructing the national 9/11 narrative. Terrorism is a political act. Bin Laden and his gang, enemies of the Islamic Saudi regime that Washington supports, had a gripe with U.S. activities in the Gulf. 9/11 was the ugly face of geo-political terrorism of the type many nations have been facing for years. Acts of terrorism are a harsh reality of the globalized age we live in, not the spiritual clash between good and evil manifesting on U.S. soil. Until Americans can cast aside the mythologized version of the War on Terror as the good fight against random acts of evil by "communities of hate," our strategy will continue to rely on American exceptionalism as a key tenet and blind us to our own global vulnerabilities and geo-economic context. Al Qaeda's successful attack should be seen neither as the harbinger of a great clash of civilizations nor as an isolated act of insanity and hatred. Rather, al Qaeda's violence on 9/11 was motivated, much like Unabomber Ted Kazinski's, by frustration with U.S. cultural and economic hegemony. A more relevant question is, how would we like to deal with that? Seeking the answer might make a realistic discussion possible.

About the Author(s): Rachel Davis is currently a graduate student in the National Security Affairs Department at NPS. She holds a BA in History of Art and Visual Culture from the University of California, Santa Cruz.


NOTES:

1. The website is at http://www.911memorial.org

2. Edward Said is best known for describing the endemic racism in Middle East/Islamic scholarship by Western academics in his 1987 book Orientalism. In this text, Said frequently referred to modern psychoanalyst Jacques Luis Lacan's use of the term "Other" to define that which is seen as radically apart or different from the self. By setting "others" apart and using the word in conjunction with "monolithic," the website's authors are making an explicitly academic reference. See http://www.911memorial.org/education-goals

3. See http://www.911memorial.org/sites/all/files/PoR%20Study%20Guide.pdf

4. These were part of a series of photographs published by Getty Images to mark the one-year anniversary of bin Laden's death and the Freedom Tower's climb to an equal plane with the Empire State building: http://www.bloomberg.com/slideshow/2012-05-01/one-world-trade-center-rises.html

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