Nothing Is Sacred: Coming to Terms With the 9/11 Memorial As a Place for the Living as Well as the Lost

nothing is sacred: the 9/11 memorial museum

It was maybe ten days after the attacks on September 11th that I heard a couple of young women tell a bartender that they had just flown in from LA and that it was almost an empty flight and had been cheaper than any other they’d taken to New York. Why’d you ladies come? he asked. We wanted to see it, they said. We wanted to get up close and know what it was like.

It’s hard to describe the rage I felt for those young women when I thought about how they’d made plans to fly out of the flat sunshine of southern California—where the air was only clouded by the same smog as always, and not the acrid electrical fire-scent that lingered here (and would continue to linger for weeks and weeks)—and into New York, just so they could “know what it was like.”

What did they want to know? I wondered. Did they want to know what it was like to see people jumping to their deaths? Did they want to see crying, stricken, tormented men and women wandering the streets, posting pictures of their missing loved ones in the dimming hopes that all was not lost? Did they want to know what it was like to feel their eyes water from the toxin filled air ? Did they want to see the countless, heavily armed National Guardsmen who filled every large public space? Did they want a souvenir? A piece of rubble? What could they want? 

I hated them. I hated the the photos they would take. I hated the stories they would bring back with them. I hated the NYPD and FDNY hats that they bought for their boyfriends back home. And more than that, I hated how the site of the deaths of thousands of people had already become another New York City tourist attraction. I hated all the other people who were bound to come in the upcoming days and weeks and months and years. I hated the politicians who were already appropriating the attacks as a means of advancing themselves (remember Bush with the bullhorn? remember Giuliani’s bid to stay in office beyond his term’s expiration, in order to ease the city’s transition?). I hated the flag pins everyone suddenly sported. I hated the people who made every conceivable effort to attach themselves to that day’s events, to get themselves as close as possible to something that nobody in their right mind would ever have wanted to be close to at all. And I hated myself for hating all these people who were, more than anything else, just doing their best to make sense of what had happened in their own misguided, awkward way—in short, by being human.

Those feelings of hate have long since dissipated (well, except when it comes to the politicians who use 9/11 for their own gain; that hate burns eternal), but the reluctance to revisit the events of that day and the days after has remained strong. And so, in recent years, as what had long been little more than an open scar in the ground began to take shape into something more, I haven’t paid much attention. Oh, it’s been impossible to ignore the newest addition to New York’s skyline, but until 1 World Trade Center actually begins to be inhabited by tenants, its existence still seems somewhat unreal—its sleek silvery shell still seems like an illusion against the sky, it lacks the stolid strength of what used to stand in its stead. But the recent opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the ensuing outcry over its kitsch-filled gift shop (the 9/11-themed cheese plate might be gone, but the 9/11 umbrella and iPhone case are still for sale) and the fact that many of the visitors to the memorial are eating and drinking and smoking and talking on their phones have made me revisit how I felt in those days following the attacks, days where I burned with an impotent fury at similar behaviors. And in revisiting those events, I’ve come to realize something. I don’t burn now.

Part of my past anger at people who came to New York to, I don’t know, feel things about 9/11 was that their trips here and their emotions about that day seemed so manufactured. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to feel all that death? It is, admittedly, something that still puzzles me. I have no desire to visit the 9/11 Memorial. I know what happened. I saw things and heard things and felt things that I don’t ever want to see or hear or feel again. And I wasn’t even in the middle of it. I was here in Brooklyn. I was safe. I was not close and I was too close. And now, almost 13 years later, I find that I can’t feel real anger at the people who walk through a place that was once the fiery site of thousands of deaths and is now a tree-filled, contemplative site full of people who can walk around and talk and laugh and cry and just be. It’s hard to hate the living when you know how quickly life can end. It’s hard to be resentful of people taking selfies when you know how quickly such careless joy can be extinguished. There are memorials in this country and around the world that are perfectly suited for somber reflection, but the 9/11 Memorial isn’t one of them. Partly this is because the site itself is—as the Twin Towers were before it—integrated into a busy, bustling part of the city, one that borders a traffic-filled highway and is surrounded by a high-density of office towers. But also it’s because this memorial was never supposed to just be a monument to quiet solitude; this monument was never just supposed to honor death. This memorial was supposed to be a testament to the strength and character of New York—the city’s perseverance and vitality. This monument is in fact reflective of our city and even our culture as a whole; it’s kitschy, messy, beautiful, flawed, and, most importantly, full of life—imperfect though it may be.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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