Monday, September 10, 2012

Trashing New York’s September 11 Memorial

Bruce Bawer

It wasn’t a big deal – but it was a small sign that time moves on.

The other day I went online to buy airline tickets. I looked at several websites, typed in the dates on which I wanted to fly, found the cheapest available fare, booked it, scribbled down the flight information, printed out the travel documents, made notes on my calendar, and then resumed my work. Not until a few hours later did I glance at the printout and realize that my departure date was September 11 – the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

Yes, I’d known throughout my ticket-booking procedure that the date was September 11, but somehow it hadn’t registered in my mind as September 11. All along, I’d thought of it as if it were, well, just another date.

I was stunned by this, and a little – or maybe more than a little – saddened. I was immediately put in mind of Wordsworth’s sonnet “Surprised by Joy,” in which the poet, after a long period of mourning for his young daughter, is appalled to catch himself experiencing pleasure and even forgetting, for a moment, that his beloved little girl is dead. “Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour,” he wonders, “Have I been so beguiled as to be blind / To my most grievous loss?”

It was not ever thus. A year or two after 9/11, I happened to fly on September 11, and was intensely aware of the date from the moment I booked it – not worried about a repeat, but very mindful of the monstrous, previously unimaginable chain of events on that world-changing day that had begun with ordinary people boarding airplanes. But now – well – time has done its work. Does my unexpected forgetfulness have anything to do with the fact that the the number of years between that terrible day and now has ticked into the double digits?

The passage of time would appear to have had other consequences. In June, a New York Daily News headline blared: “School kids trash 9/11 memorial.” A group of middle-schoolers from Brooklyn, it appeared, had been thrown out of the memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan after being caught tossing empty soda bottles and other rubbish into the fountains. It wasn’t an isolated incident. The other day, the New York Post reported that many “first responders and victims’ families” are “appalled” by the conduct of some visitors to the memorial – not just kids, but grown-ups – who reportedly act as if they’re at a “Disney attraction.” These visitors, most of them apparently tourists from out of town, laugh, take pictures, consume food and beverages, let their toddlers sit on the plaques bearing the names of the dead, and generally behave as if they’re at a Fourth of July picnic.

One reason for this behavior is, presumably, time’s passage – for most, the wound is no longer as sore as it was. Another reasons is that the signals are not entirely clear as to what exactly this place downtown is: is it intended to be a park of sorts, where most of this kind of activity (though certainly not the littering) is acceptable, or is it more like the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, where, as the Post points out, “visitors are shown a video explaining the significance of the site before entering” and a sign reads: “Please conduct yourself with dignity and respect at all times. Remember this is hallowed ground.” According to the Post, visitors to the Arizona site actually do obey the video and signs, exhibiting suitable respect for the dead.

This last is actually pretty impressive, given that millions of members of the present generation of young American adults weren’t brought up with any manners whatsoever, let alone anything remotely resembling a concept of solemnity or gravitas, and certainly haven’t raised their own kids to know how to behave appropriately in various situations. (One of the guilty Brooklyn kids told the Daily News, apropos of his and his pals’ use of the memorial fountains as a garbage dump: “No one was disrespecting….No one was being serious. Everyone was kind of bored and it was just something to do.”) Still, the anecdotal evidence from the Arizona would seem to suggest that if you give people a clear and forceful indication of what kind of conduct is expected of them, most of those who aren’t totally lacking in couth will be, more or less, cooperative. One problem with the 9/11 memorial is that it’s not an old-fashioned monument like, say, the Lincoln Memorial, where the temple-like architecture, the imposing sculpture of the Great Emancipator, and the noble words carved into the marble all clue visitors into the fact that this is, indeed, no amusement park. Postmodern monument design tends to be more ambiguous: the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, completed in 2005, consists of hundreds of concrete blocks of varying heights which suggest, on the one hand, gravestones, and, on the other, benches. Every time I’ve walked past it, I’ve seen adults sitting on the stones and children running among them. Once or twice, around sunset, I’ve seen young couples making out. The atmosphere is always one of play, never solemnity. Such may also be the fate of the 9/11 memorial.

There are, to be sure, those who don’t think that the way visitors comport themselves at the 9/11 memorial is such a big deal: the New York Observer lightly mocked the Post‘s concerns, editorializing that the site “is a place for reverence and remembrance, but also to enjoy the weather and the company of our fellow Americans.” But how can one not respect and share the feelings of Jim Richies, a retired New York firefighter who lost his son, also a fireman, on 9/11, and who, on the day after the News reported those Brooklyn kids’ vandalism, lamented in an op-ed that disrespectful conduct at the memorial is a daily occurrence: “People hang out. They sit around. They start talking loudly and joke.” One day last September, he saw visitors “lying on the grass eating and drinking…one guy was throwing a football to another guy….that is the atmosphere the people who run the memorial have created.” At the memorials in Shanksville and at the Pentagon, both run by the National Park Service, he noted, visitors are properly prepared for the sites before entering them – and their behavior is exemplary. Why isn’t this also the case at the New York memorial, which is run by a nonprofit? Richies suggested that if the unidentified remains of the 9/11 dead were placed “in an aboveground tomb, as they are at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington,” it “would set a tone of reverence and respect.”

Most important, Richies stressed, is education. Those Brooklyn kids, when they entered the site, “should have been told that nearly 3,000 people were murdered by terrorists at the World Trade Center….it’s imperative that all, young and old, be educated about…the most tragic day in American history.” There, alas, is the rub: even Americans old enough to have experienced 9/11 have had the events of that day “interpreted” for them again and again, over the years, by politicians, journalists, commentators, and the like who have, in effect, beclouded that day’s exceedingly clear lessons. As for the schoolchildren who are too young to have any memories at all of 9/11, what exactly are they being taught nowadays about it? Do they emerge from these lessons, if any, with an enhanced appreciation for the freedom that is their precious inheritance as Americans and that was under assault on that September day? It’s an easy bet that they’re not provided with a reasonable account of jihad – of the barbaric values in which it is rooted and of the sundry forms it takes, most of them infinitely subtler yet even more menacing to American liberty than terror itself. As a rule, those who teach or who prepare “educational” materials about such matters nowadays in the U.S. are, quite simply, too straitjacketed by their own (or their institutions’) political correctness and/or chronic timidity to provide the kind of candid lessons about 9/11 and its meaning that might produce young people capable of exhibiting authentic respect and reverence at what was once Ground Zero and, before that, the Twin Towers.

Yes, it’s been eleven years now. Time goes by. Everything changes. But the struggle against jihad is still underway – a war that is being waged less and less, as time goes by, in the Muslim world, and more and more in the West itself, on our own turf. It’s a subtler war, a psychological and cultural war, a war of attrition – a war that needs to be honestly explained and thoroughly comprehended if it is going to be taken seriously and won. It was 9/11 that, for many Americans, marked the explosive beginning of an awareness of this war – an awareness of just how serious and dedicated an enemy we were up against, and just how vital it was for us to be every bit as serious and dedicated as they are (not to mention fully aware of their mentality and methods). Eleven years – but 9/11 is still not an event that can or should be relegated to or treated as pure history: if we’re going to expect adults and children alike to grasp its import, to treat its memory with the proper respect, and – above all – to embrace their own obligation as free citizens to respond to it (and other jihadist provocations) in brave, honorable, and constructive ways, it’s essential that they be helped to recognize the scope and significance of the worldwide struggle in which 9/11 was the dramatic high point – and on whose resolution hinges the hope of freedom.

Bruce Bawer


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