Debasing the Memory of 9/11

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 September 11, 2017|
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This time one year ago, I was touring America to see the country in the grip of the agonistic election campaign and to prepare, like other foreigners before me, to write a book. I had only one afternoon in New York. I also had a remarkable guide, a friend who had spent his childhood weekends—before the city descended into the criminal madness of the 1970s—getting on the train from suburban Connecticut and tramping around Manhattan with his friends.

We grabbed a cab at Grand Central in the morning and travelled all the way to the Battery, marveling at the gleaming buildings in New Jersey. Then we spent all day walking back to 42nd Street, through an almost empty city—it was Labor Day weekend. The only queue we saw was a long, spindly, but seemingly funereal procession of very pretty girls. I crossed the street to ask them why they were all lined up and seeming so morose only to be told the obvious: It was a casting call for models. I’m no more used to Manhattan than anyone else…

We only spent significant time in two places. The first was the Empire State Building, which felt like a tourist trap. I felt compelled to go up to the top, and it’s worth thinking about what this iconic building reveals about New York—but it’s not important right now. The other place was the World Trade Center site and the memorial to the 9/11 victims.

This, off course, was much more shocking. It is a heartbreak that sends the blood throbbing to the temples even now. The newfangled skyscraper is quite beautiful, but perhaps it is more impressive to Americans than to a foreigner. We did not enter to the memorial museum. Even so, we saw the twisted metal remains—the skeleton of the once-proud towers. That is the only thing that I can remember seeing there to remind me of the sheer scale of the atrocity.

I felt confusion and anger well up in me, all the more as I realized I was all alone in these emotions at this place. The Americans I saw at Ground Zero did not seem exactly to be tourists, but neither were they pilgrims. I thought I saw the heart of easygoing American law-abidingness there, and I did not like it. No one was revolted at the travesty that is Ground Zero. If you’re a student of American history, you know that public architecture died sometime around 1950, just after the Jefferson Memorial was completed.

Since then, and for complicated reasons, influential Americans of various kinds, from politicians to architects, have been busy using their prestige to plan and execute what amounts to the desecration of the great heroes of America and, accordingly, to remove from Americans their dignity as citizens. The Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial is a fearful joke, recalling Communism, as it does. The Dwight Eisenhower memorial is, thank God, never going to happen, having been taken over by madmen not fit to polish the Liberator of Europe’s boots. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the great, world-spanning war president of American history, has not fared significantly better. I am told American veterans treat the Vietnam memorial as sacred, which is altogether fitting and proper, but the memorial is no more fitting to the war or to the country than the reception of the returning soldiers was. I will not talk about the other war memorials. A conspiracy of incompetence and ignobility has robbed the American people of what ought to be the necessary focus of their reverence.

Then the 9/11 memorial happened. The efforts of two generations of influential people humiliating the public memory reached their apex and  betrayed the need to memorialize the most shocking attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Now there’s a black marble hole in the ground where one of the towers stood, and along its perimeter, water running down there endlessly, one supposes to symbolize the void where patriotism should be. Names are written into the marble on the edge. There’s a paved park around it. A few benches. A few trees. Everything screams, “Relax, nothing to see here. Carry on! Nothing more than tragedy happened here.” But it wasn’t a tragedy. It was an outrage.

The people; the parties; the politicians; the influential clever speakers on the radio, TV, and Internet—none of them seem to care much about this matter. What tremendous effort of the will would it take to raise a scandal so that Americans remember they deserve much better than this and that they owe more to the dead?

How do we make it understood that consigning 9/11 to the realm of sad tragedy is to consign ourselves to the role of victim? How can we account for this abandonment of public duty and spine? The generation that witnessed the terrors and horrors of 9/11 cannot be seen to just shrug it off. We need to see more of a spirit of public defiance.

With few exceptions, Hollywood was as irresponsible as the politicians and so were the popular musicians. All these paltry creatures, worshiped as they are like the new gods of the age, proved shockingly inadequate to the moment in emphasizing the tragic elements of that day over the outrageous ones of the terrorists or the heroism of ordinary Americans. In the many years since, the conspiracy of silence has continued, as though the public did not deserve some great statement—some great story that could bring people together. The purpose of such a unifying story would not be to obliterate each private fact or history—but to give people some sense of the commons, of what can be shared as they move forward to face this new reality. Instead, the only political legacy of 9/11 is a country divided in hysterical ways over wars the purpose of which seems neither clear nor attainable. The politics of 9/11 seem to await final defeat somewhere in the Middle East.

I do not ask that Americans treat 9/11 with piety. I am with those who argue anger and a sound war policy are the solution—not endless mourning or the simulation thereof.

But I am surprised always by how resigned Americans of all walks of life are to the debasement of the public memory. Nothing can be done?

Unless we count the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, which have managed mainly to treat every citizen as a potential terrorist, where have we mobilized the country? How is it that a country once too proud to treat an act of war as a bureaucratic matter, now puts citizens through a humiliating, mindless bit of security theater,  and abandons to insensate commissions the responsibility we all share to defend our country? How did we turn the suffering of 9/11 into an ongoing war of partisan hysteria.

I have lots of academic friends who know American politics. I discuss these matters with them on occasion, when I feel it would not be presumptuous or indelicate. I do not ask that Americans treat 9/11 with piety. I am with those who argue anger and a sound war policy are the solution—not endless mourning or the simulation thereof.

But I am surprised always by how resigned Americans of all walks of life are to the debasement of the public memory. Nothing can be done? What is the great song, the great movie, the great memorial for 9/11? Where should public sentiment turn? Where the public mind? How are adults not ashamed in front of their children, who must inherit all of this?

My friend took me to nearby St. Paul’s after I was done fulminating. The church was then undergoing some restoration work, so we could not enter. He told me the place miraculously had been preserved after 9/11. A holy precinct became a hub for first responders or at any rate the efforts later made to save everyone that could be saved. I told him the only 9/11 story I knew, that of the heroic Manhattan boatlift, which was not summoned or commanded by political authorities, but rather was a show of the love Americans have for each other, taking incalculable risks for very uncertain successes, because they could not endure the shame of doing otherwise. Something of that kind of patriotism should be honored and celebrated.

 

About the Author:

Titus Techera
Titus Techera is executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. He's also a graduate student in political science, a former Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and a contributor to The Federalist, National Review Online, and Ricochet.com.
  • ADM64

    It is hard for the country to adequately honor 9/11 because maybe half the country things we had it coming, and those who do are not entirely on the left (Mr. Buchanan et al).

    The other problem, is that the response has gone on for far too long and has been inconclusive. Romans, in our place on 9/11, assuming that such a thing would happen to them, would have responded by levelling both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with nukes, and by 9/13 or so would have been done. We opted, instead to fight on our enemies’ terms based on an understanding of the problem that was entirely wrong. I could not care less whether the Afghans or the Pakistanis or the Iranians or the Saudis like us or want to be like us. If they fund, support or actively attack us, destroy them and be done with it. That’s what a superpower would do.

    Finally, one must remember that our country’s national character has tended towards the role of victim for a long time. I consider the 9/11 memorial to be an abomination because, instead of rebuilding the towers, both of them, bigger and better than before, with perhaps the damaged globe that used to stand in front of the originals in the lobby, or an eternal flame, we opted instead to leave two big holes in the ground, greater testaments for our enemy than anything else. The speed with which everyone took rebuilding off the table was disgusting. But, character is fate and our character isn’t what it once was, certainly not amongst our so-called leaders.

  • mushduck

    Powerful Titus. I just read your take on the 9/11 hole in the ground to my husband. He was shouting in agreement. We’ve never heard or read anything more succinctly accurate about this travesty. It was cathartic for us.

  • Joel Mathis

    Maybe….

    •••we treat 9/11 like a tragedy, because for those most directly involved, it was. They were not warriors who sallied forth under the flag in hopes of bringing honor to their families and country. They were just people who would’ve avoided being there that day if they could’ve, with families who found more grief than honor in the passing of their loved ones.

    •••we don’t try to keep the fire of anger burning in perpetuity because that way lies unending grievance and anger that can never be resolved. That way lies a 16-year-war that continues to claim victims without any end in sight. And invasions of countries that did us no harm that day. And the torture of a few innocent people.

    •••the “I remember 9/11 with more emotion and authenticity than you do” genre of seasonal writing on conservative websites is tedious.

    • JWM

      Islam did us harm that day and to allow it to perpetuate the evil is travesty.

    • Ming the Merciless

      When innocent people are slaughtered, that is not a tragedy, it is an atrocity.

      The time for forgiveness and to extinguish the fires of anger is when the enemy is utterly defeated. If the enemy is still fighting, if the same people are still trying to kill you, then it is proper and necessary to remain angry.

      “Oh it was tragic, but let’s move on now” is exactly the kind of stupidly suicidal, complacent attitude that allowed 9/11 to happen in the first place.

  • Robert Cocco

    Thank you, Titus.

  • AEJ

    1) Titus sees a “debasing’. I don’t.
    2) He didn’t go into the “memorial museum”. He needs to do that. All the way in. Through all the exhibits. All the way down. Down to the bottom of the slurry wall (which held). He missed too much to be a fit judge of the site.
    3) St Paul’s? If you know nothing of its place on that day and in the year(s) following, I don’t expect you to feel much either way. Educate yourself about it, then return when it’s open again.
    4) No decent memorials since about 1950/the Jefferson Memorial? Not even the National WWII Memorial? ?
    5) It was an “outrage”. I agree. But not only an “outrage”. The Memorial (and the museum, and its surroundings [all of that portion of lower Manhattan affected]) reflects -and must reflect, if it’s to be ‘genuine’- the never ending conflict of human emotions forced upon persons -and a People- on that day of murderous horror and loss. Some ‘artists’ were successful at touching the edge of this conflict within. “I want a kiss from your lips. I want an eye for an eye. I woke up this morning to an empty sky”.

    • Tom Myers

      Good breakdown. I visited for first time in July. For anyone who remembers the day well; the above ground memorial is moving in its somber simplicity and scale. I found the museum so realistic anecdotes detailed that about halfway thru I walked out feeling much like I did 16 yrs ago. Titus missed it

      • AEJ

        I understand the author’s anger. (and he’s wrong if he thinks many of us -Americans- aren’t still angry; I for one am still, 16 years later.). But anger isn’t all there is to it.
        I also agree with his assessment of the Pols’ responses, in many ways. And all the mistakes and reprehensible policies in the past 16 years. Though I don’t know what else we could do (militarily) about AQ other than kill every Afghani -the murderers and the innocent- in Afghanistan. And of course Pakistan. And in every other country (including Western nations) where they shelter themselves, planning the same and worse.

        I am the same as you: going through the museum leaves me feeling as if the years never passed. In that sense, then they have done their job.

    • lazlototh

      I’m happy that Titus seems to admire our country. I don’t see things the way he does. The Vietnam memorial is ambiguous and sad. But the sadness is also ambiguous. Some people are sad about our involvement. Others like me are sad at how poorly we executed on our actions there, and see it as a reminder of what not to do in terms of committing halfway, and remembering that our own leadership changes and that current leadership has to take that into account more so we don’t have another Vietnam OR another Iraq, though I still think Iraq is an unfinished book.

      As for Ground Zero – I was in Manhattan September 11, working in midtown, and long before that lived downtown when nobody else did and the Trade Centers were an odd sort of home because they were the only shopping downtown at the time (early 1980s). I’ve never been comfortable visiting it as a tourist attraction but understand that others might. I felt the same about the USS Arizona but still visited when in Hawaii. If it makes you think, then it did its job.

      But I also think that where the trade centers were should not be a mausoleum. We need to show that we build on disasters and thrive on disasters – the way that any self-respecting ant or bee colony would (I’m not debasing humans, I’m complimenting ants and bees). Galveston isn’t a graveyard and more people died there. We are alive and vibrant and need to make the past part of ourselves without being so owned by it that we are immobilized. Oddly, lower Manhattan is nicer with the new building than it was with the towers, though I would have stood in line to donate money to rebuild the towers just to show we could, like good, self-respecting ants. But we also took what happened and improved upon it because that is who we are. We took too long, blamed each other, and argued about it too, but that is also who we are. I hope Titus can reflect on that and come away with a more accommodating view of those who visit Ground Zero. I can’t really visit it still, even though I go by all the time. But I can understand others looking at it a bit differently.

      • AEJ

        I’m always torn about rebuilding the twin towers, or not.
        But in a sense, the site is a mausoleum. The repository still holds the remains of the (as of yet) unidentified.
        It’s was ‘too soon’ I think to build on the footprint. In time, someone will, I’m sure of it. When, I don’t know. 50 years won’t be long enough. 100? 150? Maybe 150. I think the same will happen with many other memorials. Like the USS Arizona Memorial. One day, way in the future, when the last bit of rust washes away, people will decide to remove the memorial and leave the ‘story’ in books.
        But right now it’s too soon.

        I visit Ground Zero because I help out with senior citizens tours (they need people to help push wheelchairs). One elderly woman I was assigned to help was a Holocaust survivor. Inside the museum, she happened upon the exhibit for Flight 93 and she spent almost the entire visit inside that room, reading everything, listening to the audio, etc. On the bus ride home to NJ, she talked about it near the entire ride.
        Something about that touched something in her. I don’t know why, she even said she didn’t know why.
        It’s really hard to explain; it’s really hard to grasp, to understand… so I don’t even try.
        But I’ll keep going back as long as they need wheelchair pushers. And when St Paul’s is open again, we’ll wheel them there again too.

    • Doctor Bass Monkey

      He has a very superficial and distorted understanding of America in general.

  • Bill Robbins

    I do not plan to visit any 9/11 memorials, as I carry the memory of the day in my head, and will never calm down about it. America was attacked, the attack was successful, and the foundations of the American Democratic Republic continue to crumble before our eyes.

  • What is truly outrageous is the fake patriotism of this piece about the debasement of 9/11 being posted on a website that steadfastly supports a “president” whose response to 9/11 was to brag about now owning the tallest building in NYC and who stiffed the charitable funds established in the wake of the attack.

  • ladychurchillusa

    Dear Titus, We are Americans we do not wallow in our self pity. We rebuild and we reverently move on. We remember our dead but do not need to rend our garments in public. We mourn by giving those dead the best that we can, our undying love and our undying will to be a free people who will overcome anything even the death of our loved ones. You will never understand that until you understand that Hollywood is not America, and the real America has been in mourning since 9-11 but we will never throw ourselves into the grave. We are a people that can always rise from the ashes.

  • Epaminondas

    Just remember what you wrote the next time you see a bunch of barbarians tearing down a Confederate, (or any other historic American), monument.