A recent article in the New York Times confronted the difficult task of the creators of the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan. There is a dichotomy in the need to respect the memories of those who lost their lives in the attacks and also to address the historical facts regarding the events that led to them. The director of the museum, Alice Greenwald, was the former associate director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and seems to be grappling with a lot of the same issues that surface in Holocaust remembrance: graphic images, tragic tales, and the silencing shock that accompanies the realization of the limits of humanity.
There are naturally many differences between the Holocaust and 9/11, but it is undeniable that both events changed the course of history. The main distinction between the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the chrysalis of the September 11 Memorial is the passage of time. It has been nearly 80 years since Hitler came to power and Europe disintegrated into the maniacal chaos of mass murder and destruction; the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred hardly more than a decade ago. Children who lost a parent may now be teenagers or young adults – their lives have only just begun, but there are few Holocaust survivors who remain. This also means that there is much more controversy about the sensitivity of the objects on display as well as some of the content.
The events of 9/11 were documented in a way that the Holocaust could not have been: the availability of photographs, video, and reporting from mass media outlets available in a modern, digital world made 9/11 visible to people in a way the Holocaust was not. The towers fell while Americans and others watched on major news networks across the country and around the globe; other photographs and videos were almost immediately available online. The museum advisory committee has had to make difficult decisions regarding what kind of content should or shouldn't be included, such as last voicemails from victims to their loved ones, recordings from calls from the hijacked planes, and endless photographs and videos of the unimaginable last moments of victims who were injured or trapped.
Greenwald said that there are soft versions of harsh facts presented in the museum. Calm voicemails are available for visitors instead of hysterical ones. Photographs of the people trapped are only displayed if the victims cannot be recognized. Certain videos may only be accessible without sound. A certain sensitivity has been carefully constructed around blunt truths for visitors to experience the museum and learn about the attacks in accordance with their own comfort levels.
That Tuesday morning is ingrained in every American’s mind. As a fourth grader living not 20 miles away from Ground Zero, I could not understand why the city’s skyline had changed or how fate had spared my family from incomprehensible loss. Every American knows where they were and what they were doing when they learned what happened on that day; a day which defined American history as clearly as the crash of 1929 or the assassination of JFK. It is only natural that we want to protect ourselves from reliving the pain and confusion of 9/11 and the collective uncertainty that followed in domestic and international politics as the country struggled to recover. But how much of that protection transforms into evasion and then ignorance? And to what extent is the raw presentation of historical fact egregiously carnal? Is it wrong to remember selectively in the interest of self-preservation against nightmares and guilt?
No. But, we cannot deny those facts to future generations. The past is learned so that the present can be understood. The aforementioned New York Times article opens with the debate about whether to include photographs of the hijackers responsible for the attacks or not. I vote yes – it is not a commemoration of their wasted lives but a tribute to those that they stole. September 11 is a day to remember, but also to understand how the world changed in an instant. All Americans had new thoughts on privacy; some had new-found opinions of Islam. It changed presidential powers and altered the conditions of international conflicts. The date remains always in the American subconscious and is a base for study and analysis of the 21st century.