The Inherent Awfulness of the New 9/11 Museum

On May 21, the $700 million dollar National September 11 Memorial Museum opened to the general public,12 years and change after that awful, now-historic day in September.

The museum provoked controversy for years before it even opened. The astronomical cost – a mixture of private and government funding – to build the thing, as well as the $24 cost of admission is just one sore spot. More painfully, some families of 9/11 victims spent years in court fighting the placement of 8,000 unidentified remains of some 1000 people into a special mausoleum of sorts in the museum. These pieces of human beings are not going to be put on display for gawking tourists or anything, but it’s perfectly understandable that family members would still find the prospect of bits of their loved ones sitting behind a museum door for all eternity to be distressing. Yet, this is also the fundamental contrast between history and personal sorrow. Though the former is made from the latter, it’s trickier to know how to memorialize and remember when people who suffered or lost people are still here to witness how a tragedy is preserved.

This conflict was beautifully explored by Buzzfeed’s Steve Kandell. In a recent essay, Kandell describes a gut-wrenching visit to the new museum after 12 years of his family’s attempts to mourn the sister they loved alone and without any of the pomp and politics of having such "special" grief. Mostly, it’s a personal piece, but Kandell mentions briefly his trouble with the loaded quality of 9/11. Or at least what came after – blowback is not mentioned. Still, one guy mourning his sister should be forgiven for being unable to see the big picture; particularly when seeing the death of a sibling turned into a drop in the grand bucket is a large part of what upsets him.

The 330 million people who tolerated two aggressive wars and a decade and more of hysteria after 9/11 are another matter. And this brings up the question, what should be done about 9/11, historically? Can you make a museum about such a political moment – to use the most banal term for murder being paid back by more than two orders of magnitude – when it is still rippling throughout Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and all over the Middle East? When it is still being used to justify an incomprehensibly vast global spying enterprise? And when it gave us not only the PATRIOT Act, but also what one writer dubbed "the most dangerous sentence in U.S. history," the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)?

You can’t. Even Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum, which includes bunks from Buchenwald, Raoul Wallenberg’s passport, and other eerie, powerful objects ends with an uncomfortably pro-Israel feeling. Maybe this is a US sickness, but it seems that there must be always be a message, a false hope at the end, or a people avenged. It can’t just all be meaningless bloodshed, after all. Go check out any war memorial (except, arguably the Vietnam war one). You can’t honor the dead when you’re still using them to fuel wars, so you had better make their death mean something big. Or, as Charles Madison says in the classic antiwar film The Americanization of Emily, "The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields… we perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices." The soldiers who were conscripted and the ones who volunteered are mixed together as one in every troop tribute. They’re all heroes, no matter what. The 9/11 victims are the same. This is so vile, and has been used to justify so much misery, that a few family members being outraged by the museum’s gift shop is really too much to worry over.

The New York Post first mentioned this brewing outrage on May 18. Turns out the museum’s $63 million annual operating budget – including at least $10 million annual security costs, how fitting are those metal detectors and scanners! – will be eased by the sale of painfully earnest, yet completely crass merchandise such as $64 "survivor tree earrings" and $39 hoodies emblazoned with an image of the Towers. Family members of victims are quoted voicing their disgust, but this is a museum that cost $250 million in tax dollars. Offsetting the upkeep with good, old fashioned capitalism is a fair trade for continually honoring the dead in this fashion. Victims’ families didn’t ask for their loved ones to be cast as Important Deaths for all time, but expensive souvenirs are such a lesser evil compared to the last 12 years that it’s hard to feel moved by their sorrow now.

In his Buzzfeed piece, Kandell wearily alludes to this when he writes "The events of the day have already been exploited and sold in ways previously incomprehensible, why get mad at a commemorative T-shirt now?" Indeed. People like Kandell lost friends and family, and then they had the privilege of their loss being the battle cry for destroying Iraq, invading Afghanistan, and sending drones endlessly patrolling over Yemen and Pakistan; not to mention the NSA spying on everything we do. That – not a pricey hoodie – is the tragedy.

September 11 is history. The wars that came after continue, yet they are becoming history as well. And history invariably becomes fodder for a middle school field trip, full of people half paying attention. It’s horrible, and a natural progression of time.

Still, it was too soon for a 9/11 museum, since we are still stuck in the muddy habit of using that day as the magic incantation which makes every foreign adventure legal and right. We should have fixed the mess our policies made before we tried to cast them carefully in the past. But that might mean admitting some people died for no good reason – particularly the hundreds of thousands of individuals in the Middle East, who will get no $700 million tributes from us.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.