9-11 at fourteen: spectacle commodified
Last night, this blogger visited the 9-11 Museum—invited by a friend who got free passes that evening because she worked in the area of the disaster in September 2001. I certainly was not going to pay the absurd $24 entrance fee. There was also a surreal irony to the fact that entering the museum entailed a full airport-style security check, complete with X-rays, full-body metal-detector scans, complete emptying of pockets, removal of belts, and so on. And this at a supposed memorial to American freedom. Talk about the "terrorists win." The museum itself is in many ways impressive—starting with its sheer scale. It is actually built in the World Trade Center "Bathtub," the huge foundation pit with reinforced walls to keep the waters of the Hudson River at bay. These walls are left visible, loaning an atmosphere of stark industrial majesty. The Mohawk iron workers who risked their lives in the construction of the WTC are, at least, briefly mentioned. There is inevitably a lot of maudlin and/or bellicose patriotism on display, but any honest presentation would have to reflect that, and it is generally shown with a sense of objectivity.
The section dealing with historical background on the Afghanistan war and rise of al-Qaeda is surprisingly in-depth, and the accompanying video presentation (about which there was much ado upon its unveiling last year) was not particularly problematic to this viewer. There is even one anti-war leaflet on display from the jingoist paroxysm in the disaster's aftermath—although unfortunately from the dictator-cheering, genocide-abetting faction ANSWER. (Will you please stop telling us that these idiots don't represent the anti-war movement? Here, in a place where it really matters, displayed for the masses and preserved for posterity, they manifestly do exactly that.)
The sickest thing about the museum (apart from the entrance fee and the security measures) is the gift shop. The crass commercialism is evidence of how completely the disaster of September 2001 has been commodified. And a block away on Liberty Street there is another 9-11 Tribute Center, which, if more democratic in conception (it is a project of the September 11th Families' Association), is also asking a hefty $22 for a guided tour ($15 general admission). (We are glad to see that that the anti-war September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows also remain active, with an event planned later this month.)
The following day, Sept. 11, I returned to the scene in the afternoon, and walked through the memorial grounds, above the museum, centered on the two giant reflecting pools where the towers used to be. There were many heartfelt messages and floral bouquets left by survivors, as well as clueless tourists cheerfully snapping selfies. But the most disturbing thing was (predictably) the level of security. Access to the memorial was only through a narrow choke-point carefully watched by agents of the NYPD Counterterrorism Units, who also patrolled the grounds. There was no sense of the self-organized spontaneity and even political contention that characterized the impromptu memorial gatherings at the intersection of Church and Vesey streets (the closest accessible point to what was then called "Ground Zero") in the years before the memorial opened.
I always viewed the 9-11 conspiracy-mongers who noisily crashed the memorial every year as disrespectful idiots and political vampires of the lowest order. But the last year I saw them out there on Sept. 11 was 2011. If they've finally thrown in the towel because they've thought better of their obnoxious tactics (not to mention their wacky theories), that's a good thing. But if they've done so because it simply isn't possible to protest at the memorial site, that is definitely a very bad thing. After all, the right to be a disrespectful idiot is an important one. If freedom means anything at all, it means the right to voice unpopular, disturbing ideas—and, indeed, the right to be wrong.
As we noted in our Sept. 11 2014 report, the day still resonates as an occasion for jingoism and war propaganda. But perhaps the day's commodification and transformation into an empty spectacle is ultimately even more disturbing...