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What the 9/11 Memorial Is Helping Us Forget

New York City News
by Aaron Hamburger Jun 5, 2014

THE REVIEWS ARE IN for New York’s latest tourist attraction:  The 9/11 Memorial is a hit!

“Powerful as a punch to the gut,” says The New York Times.

“For the next generation and those that follow, this will be a museum and memorial that will last forever like the blood-soaked field in Gettysburg,” raves the New York Daily News.

At the new museum, visitors can watch a video of the 9/11 hijackers go through airport security, snap selfies in front of actual ruins of the fallen Twin Towers, and of course, buy souvenir t-shirts or silk scarves with images of the World Trade Center.

Forget The Book of Mormon.  The $24 admission to the 9/11 Museum is now the hottest ticket in town.  At least for this month.

However, I don’t need to go to a 9/11 museum.  On September 11, 2001, I was in New York.

I remember people huddled on street corners, climbing onto deli awnings, all facing south to get a better view of the black smoke billowing out of the towers.  I remember being stuck on a subway train at Canal Street for half an hour, and showing up an hour late to work, where my boss said, “What are you doing here?  Don’t you know what’s going on?  Planes are falling out of the sky.”

I remember people with stunned looks on their faces, covered with ash, heading towards Brooklyn.  I remember a teenage girl, terrified, saying, “Why are we friends with Israel?”

I remember the entire southern tip of Manhattan shrouded in smoke.

I remember ordering a greasy cheeseburger for dinner.  With French fries.  And ice cream.

I remember (though I wish I didn’t have to remember) thinking, “Thank God that George Bush is president,” even though I voted for Al Gore.

I remember September 12th, a beautiful late summer day, everyone off of work and having picnics in Central Park, throwing Frisbees, pulling out their copies of The New York Times with the picture of a man diving off the top of one of the Towers.

I remember all that good will we felt toward each other afterwards, most of it wasted.

The main thing I remember is thinking how raw and how real and how confusing it was.  Nothing made sense.  All the rules of everyday existence being turned upside down.  There was no beginning, middle, or end to the events as they unfolded.  Just bursts of information and experience.  All of us, in those early days, felt more vividly alive.  Our senses were heightened.  Like frightened animals, we were on guard for the next attack on our city, which never came.

And I remember too wondering how and when this very real experience would become transformed into a story, a coherent narrative — a process that is inherently diminishing, as all representations and abstractions are.

The increasingly histrionic solemnity with which 9/11 has been commemorated makes me long for silence, rather than the piling on of platitudes like “Never forget.”  I have a new appreciation for the genius of Maya Lin’s stark, content-less Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington.

People say the purpose of commemoration is to educate, to preserve the past.  But misremembering is also a kind of forgetting.  Wouldn’t it be better, more tasteful, to say less rather than more, to inspire people to actively find out what happened on their own instead of swallowing some sanitized version behind plexiglas?

In fact, isn’t it more honest to admit that someday people will forget, just as they have all tragedies of history?  The massacre of the Jews of York, starvation in the Ukraine in the 1930s, the bloody battle of Verdun, the great Chinese famine in the late 1950s — anyone recall those?  Time necessarily erases, elides, necessarily sands off the rough edges of reality.

Perhaps the motive of the builders of the 9/11 Memorial is to stave off that process for a little while.  But turning a real event into a $24 tourist hot spot promising thrills and chills has nothing to do with preserving or remembering or educating.  It’s just more noise in a culture where silence is rapidly becoming the most tasteful, moral, and rarest impulse of all.

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