Shame’s Cathedral

June 12, 2014

Multiple Pages
Shame’s Cathedral

I’ll admit I went to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum with a bad attitude. Why are we memorializing a humiliation? Two of our proudest buildings were leveled and some 3,000 of our people were killed—unarmed, going about their workaday business—by a gang of foreign religious fanatics. Why should we memorialize this?

I know, there’s a Pearl Harbor memorial and museum. There was a mighty war subsequent to that humiliation though, and we won it decisively, thereby wiping out the blot.  

Subsequent to 9/11 we did do some selective hitting back at Islamia; but love-the-world romantics soon found their footing and turned it into a futile missionary endeavor to spread democracy—an endeavor now petering out ignobly amid jihadist triumphalism in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

So … what are we memorializing?

“Making money from rents and leases isn’t romantic, but it’s psychically more healthful than memorializing humiliation.”

Personally I’d have preferred it if, after the 9/11 atrocity, the owners of this land in downtown Manhattan had just rebuilt the entire area as office buildings, or yuppie apartment blocks complete with Whole Foods marts, health clubs, and Apple stores. Making money from rents and leases isn’t romantic, but it’s psychically more healthful than memorializing humiliation.

Or so, in my curmudgeonly way, I fore-reasoned. My mood wasn’t improved when, having at last got to the front of the ticket line for the museum, I was accosted thus by the female security person in charge of the line: “You look very dapper!”

Did I? I was wearing a sports jacket with gray flannel pants, brown shoes, white shirt, and sober tie. Looking around, I saw what she meant. Everyone else in the memorial plaza, ages 9 to 90, was dressed like a middle schooler at summer camp: shorts, sneakers (socks optional), T-shirts. The most skeptical person there—I, presumably—was the only one showing sartorial respect.
I thanked the woman with ill grace and stepped forward to purchase my ticket. It was good for 5 P.M., leaving me 45 minutes to kill. I ambled aimlessly around the plaza, past one of the huge square pools marking the “footprints” of the Twin Towers. I had actually worked at 5WTC in 1985-6, and sometimes ate my lunch in the plaza. I tried to orient myself—where was the bench I used to sit on?—but of course there is nothing recognizable left.

Nature called. I asked a security guy where the bathrooms were. He: “There aren’t any. You have to leave the plaza, cross the road there—see?—and go to one of those office buildings.”

They spent a bazillion dollars on this plaza and there are no bathrooms? My mood darkened. By the time I hiked a quarter-mile hike each there and back in time to enter the museum, I was having trouble keeping my cynicism under control.

The displays and exhibits in the museum are well laid out, with a time line following the events of September 11th. A gallery on one side explained some of the deep background, such as U.S. support for the Mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s. Another showed the clearing of the site and subsequent construction efforts.

The terrible events of that day were the main focus, though. Through no fault of the designers, I found this hard to engage with because of overfamiliarity. Even the twisted girders and wrecked fire trucks were nothing new—I’d seen them at the state museum in Albany. The effect would surely be greater for schoolkids and foreign visitors.

Two things did arrest my attention. One was a huge “composite”—a great lump, a dozen feet across, of hyper-compacted metal, building materials, office equipment, and perhaps, in its interior, flattened and carbonized human fragments. Just a formless lump of flattened wreckage, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

The other was a partially walled-off recess, just big enough for a half-dozen people, on the inner wall of which were projected, one after another, still pictures of jumpers. There is no accompanying sound, just the pictures. In one of them there are five jumpers strung out in the air, yards apart. Colleagues, friends, lovers—who knows? What is it, this human life, to end in such horror?

By the time I got to the gift shop my cynicism had all drained away. Heck, I even bought a 9/11 commemorative mug—the one that says IN DARKNESS WE SHINE BRIGHTEST. Looking at it now, here on my desk, the cynicism creeps back.

Yes, let’s feel good about ourselves, and remember the courage and skill of our cops and firemen, and marvel at how well the city recovered. And let’s go on with the same fool meddling policies, the same half-wit multiculturalism, that brought 9/11 upon us. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s gut the fire department in the name of diversity! 

Those are desk thoughts, though. Moving among the mostly-silent crowds in the 9/11 Museum, amid all the images of chaos and death, cynicism is badly out of place.

Philip Larkin, who was a stone atheist, wrote a poem about visiting an old country church. The experience didn’t turn him to religion, but he did come away acknowledging that: “A serious house on serious earth it is … If only that so many dead lie round.”

I guess I’m never going to get the idea of memorializing 9/11, any more than Larkin got religion. Still, I came away minding the place less than when I went in. It’s not for me, but plainly it is for a lot of people, and I respect their honest reverence; if only that so many dead lie around.


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