Friday, June 27, 2014

Making War on Citizens at the National September 11 Museum

Steven Johnston
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.


  1. Although I have not been to the museum since it has open, I was in it while it was under construction and I have to say that I found it very emotional. As with any museum or memorial, people are going to take pictures so they can remember being there. What's different with this museum is that I actually understand what happened so pictures are not as important. When I go to visit things like the Vietnam Memorial or the Parthenon I take pictures to say I was there. Since I was not alive during these events, the memorials have less of an impact on me. When I went to the 911 Memorial, I was reminded of where I was the day it happened and how scared we all were whenever we heard planes flying above. Besides just remembering that day, the memorial serves as a reminder of the years of continuous fighting in the Middle East. There have been more lives lost because of this event than just those in the towers. I agree with Johnston when he talks about seeing all the names projected and not wanting to leave, out of respect, until they all have finished. Maybe it is just because I am older, but I feel that since 911, we are thanking service men and women anytime we can. I think now, more than before, we feel we owe them for defending our country and it would be the right thing to stay and watch every name. I also agree with the point made about the memorial serving as a distraction. Once again, we attempt to “glorify” the US by showing how we were able to defeat bin Laden, signified by the brick from his house, but we neglect to mention all the innocent lives we have taken along the way. While the US did have thousands of deaths, we caused many more deaths which are no where to been seen in the museum. Overall, the museum does a good job at representing the events of the day of the 911 attacks, it just might be too early to not evoke a lot of emotion which brings about a lot of the controversy. The visitors of today are directly connected to the events but as the years go on, I think it will serve as a good reminder of what has happened and how major events like this could happen again.

  2. It sickens me that a museum like this exists. I have visited the 911 Memorial, but refused to step foot in the museum. To me, the museum commercializes death and also serves as “National power” propaganda. I’m not saying that the events that took place weren’t horrible or that they should be forgotten, but I don’t think it is right for a museum to exist where the lives that were lost are overpowered by architectural displays that seem to say “we’re still here, you didn’t get us, Bin Laden.” I think it is inappropriate that the artifacts and memorabilia have been put on display in a burial ground. When I first met Steve Johnston he asked me if memorials or monuments should be torn down once they are no longer relevant to a society or people. At first I was somewhat offended by his question and thought “of course they should always stay up… Could you imagine taking something like this down and all of the people you would offend? It’s not worth the political backfire.” But now I understand his point. Living through September 11, 2001 and remembering every news broadcast and watching the twin towers fall in real time was devastating. I don’t think that someone who was born in 2005 would ever be able to understand what happened that day. I wouldn’t want people to walk through the 911 Museum in 20 years and for the museum to shape their idea of what happened that day or what was important.
    I think that the fountains that fall into a dark black tomb have a significant impact and that they make a statement without overdoing it. Those waterfalls are heard through the silence at Ground Zero and have a haunting impact on visitors without throwing anything in their faces. I don’t like how the museum is filled with architectural remains that only show “we’re still standing, you couldn’t crush our powerful buildings and our powerful morale”. The waterfalls allow visitors to self reflect and remember in their own way. I think that the museum is National propaganda that forces visitors to think, reflect, and remember in a very specific way: the way that they want you to remember. The signs and plaques tell you how to feel, and I don’t like thinking about remembering 9/11 in that way. I would compare the museum to an artificial catacomb, a final resting place for thousands of people, but it is artificial because the artifacts are out on display and aren’t present to comfort the dead. They’re present to show power and dominance and to show that “we cannot be shaken”. I don’t want my children to remember the lives lost on that day in this way. I don’t like how the faces seem to be plastered around as if they’re billboards for National pride. I’m not proud of the lives that were lost; the fathers, the mothers, the children, the lovers. Johnston says it gives the museum a more personal feel than just displaying a list of names, but I think that the faces are also not personal. Each of those faces had a story and it cannot be summed up behind two smiling eyes. Those faces don’t show the devastation or the horror that those persons faced in their final hours. There is no triumph there.