Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah
The National September 11 Museum, which opened to controversy in May, functions as an affective and political continuation, even intensification of the National September 11 Memorial. It is not a freestanding institution. Philip Kennicott, architecture critic of The Washington Post, considers the Museum a “supplement” to Michael Arad’s Memorial pools, but destructively so: it “overwhelms—or more literally undermines—the dignified power of [the] memorial by inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.” This is what makes the Museum, in my judgment, a continuation of the Memorial. That is, the Museum, which is located directly beneath Ground Zero, does belowground what the Memorial does aboveground: it makes war on citizens. The Memorial creates this effect more subtly as the reflecting pools’ waterfalls mimic the collapsing towers. Here there is no debris left over; the water crashes down and disappears into a void where it is recirculated to provide the material for subsequent collapses. The Museum, on the other hand, recreates the horrors of September 11 in intimate, assaultive detail and does so primarily by targeting individuals—their memories, their experiences, their traumas. This approach to commemoration crystallizes America’s understanding of itself as an unrivaled source of right and good in the world and nothing more than an innocent victim on September 11, 2001. It thus obscures, among other things, the violence and tragedy constitutive of its imperial democracy. Nevertheless, it was precisely the institutional structures of this violence and tragedy that were attacked on September 11. To explicitly acknowledge this, of course, would be to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s success on September 11, thereby showing respect for an enemy, an act of which America, not alone among democracies, is incapable.
What, more specifically, does it mean for the National September 11 Museum to make war on citizens? The idea here is not to kill them, of course. Wars are much broader in scope and their violence assumes myriad forms. The idea is to overpower them with an awesome display of architectural and archaeological engineering, a display that perversely matches, even surpasses, al-Qaeda’s 2001 assault. It’s as if the world’s leading democracy, feeling insecure not just about its porous borders but also its very identity, needed to prove itself equal, even superior to its deadliest enemy regardless of the cost. What Terry Smith has written of the World Trade Center’s and al Qaeda’s masterminds could be said of the Museum’s: ”To attempt creation or destruction on such an immense scale requires both bombers and master-builders to view living processes in general, and social life in particular, with a high degree of abstraction. Both must undertake a radical distancing of themselves from the flesh and blood of mundane experience ‘on the ground.’” This claim might seem counter-intuitive with the Museum, given its emphasis on the individual, but it simultaneously addresses everyone and no one, hence its air of abstraction. Emanating from its own cavernous vacuum, the Museum seems determined to induce a certain emotional-political sensibility, to break the morale of visitors and any possible resistance they might offer to its impressive and appalling death-laden design itself in service of a nationalist politics. I’m tempted to say it may not even matter if anyone visits the Museum. For the United States, it’s enough that it was built.
Visitors enter the Museum on the same level as the Memorial. To access the Museum proper, one first takes a long descending escalator ride past one of the massive steel tridents that formed part of the World Trade Center façade. It is the first official ruin one sees, a sign both of mass murder and indestructibility. It also serves, along with the other ruins, to make a point of political pride. The towers collapsed, but total destruction was not and could not be achieved. These are exceptional artifacts. The enemy did not succeed as it might first appear. The Museum begins officially, if you will, at the bottom of the escalator. The contentious gift shop is located on this level; it contains souvenir items—coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains, hors d’oeuvres plates—which can serve as daily reminders of horror and death.
The Museum’s inexorable descent to bedrock seven storeys below ground level, which somehow renders a sense of return to the surface and life problematic, if not quite doubtful, is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall, except this descent takes place on a much grander scale and entirely indoors. Instead of virtually walking into a tomb from outside, as in Washington, D.C., one is always already in a tomb at the National September 11 Museum. This tomb is filled with thousands and thousands of the still-unidentified remains of the day’s victims. After all, the site is both a cemetery and the official repository of the dead. The tomb is also littered with ruins and debris from the day’s attacks: an antenna from the roof of one of the towers; the motor from one of the elevators; the last steel beam to be removed from the clean-up site; a fire truck badly damaged during rescue efforts; twisted steel remnants from the floors that were struck. These substantial items look tiny in the immense surroundings of the underground tomb, which include the original slurry wall that held back the Hudson River to the west. The visitor is made to feel puny.
Puniness apparently reaches its climax next to the north Memorial pool, the bottom of which can be circumnavigated underground. Here one encounters a small information sign. It reveals that some 1,200 feet above this very spot, “hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center” and “tore a gash in the building more than 150 feet wide.” What is the visitor to do now? How is the visitor to react after reading this matter-of-fact fact? Look up and imagine the day’s terrible events, the towers suddenly collapsing above and down upon him, and winding up beneath 110 floors of compressed rubble? The inclusion on site of a composite of several floors of one of the towers flattened and fused gives one answer. It’s not enough to imagine the death of others; one must also imagine one’s own. Vulnerability, susceptibility, contingency define life here.
In the Museum’s Memorial Exhibition, which highlights the identities of those killed in the day’s attacks, the memorialization circle is closed. On a “Wall of Faces,” there is a portrait photograph of each and every victim. This complements the names inscribed in the Memorial directly above. On so-called touch screen tables, visitors can call up the name of any victim and learn more about her. Inside this memorial hall there is an inner chamber with benches lining the walls. The name of everyone killed is sequentially projected onto opposing walls, followed by biographical information, and, where possible, audio-visual reminiscences from family or friends. Visitors sit respectfully in the chamber and watch the alphabetical parade of names relentlessly pass by, as if afraid to leave, which would seem rude given the solemnity of the space. The attacks that are recreated by the Memorial waterfalls produce their offspring here.
The Memorial Exhibition aspires to pay tribute to the day’s victims. To challenge this aspiration seems almost offensive by the time you reach the Museum’s nadir, especially if you have seen the room in the Historical Exhibition which catalogues and documents those who jumped from the Towers on September 11. Still photographs capture these horrific scenes, estimated at some 50 to 200, accompanied by recollections of people who witnessed the suicides but could not look away, for that would be to abandon people (though strangers) at the worst moment of their lives. It’s a gut-wrenching alcove, one of several with a box of tissues at the ready, and with a bench just outside it so people can sit and compose themselves afterwards.
What is the point of this death-driven redundancy? Edward Rothstein speculates that the Museum “is the site of their murder. And the attention to individuality presumably highlights the scale of the terrorist crime.” It also serves, as Rothstein notes, to distract. The Museum signifies avoidance, even denial of America’s contradictory role in the world and its contributions to the circumstances that make 9/11 all too conceivable rather than unthinkable. The Museum thus contributes to the impoverishment, through privatization, of public space. Leaving the National September 11 Museum, the single, solitary brick from Osama bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, Afghanistan, liberated by the American assassination team that eradicated him from the face of the earth, and proudly on display at bedrock, may be the Museum’s representative artifact. There are two possibilities, the brick suggests: challenge the American-led global order of things and you will be reduced to this; or, align yourself with the American-led global order of things, which also reduces you to a brick, a mere pillar of America’s global war on terror.