This is the second time I’ve written about 9/11 on this blog, and I still feel overwhelmed by the amount of things that I can’t express and the number of ideas that continue to be added to this date. It’s a reminder of evil that can cause despair and which demands our attention.
This year is different from others due to the fifteen year anniversary we’re hitting, but also because I visited Ground Zero for the first time. Gung Gung and I went to New York City for the day, and we started on the east side of Manhattan. He wanted to show me the docks there, where there is a museum (currently under renovation) and a nice view of the Brooklyn Bridge. We turned back west from that point and walked along a small street that runs behind the Wall Street edifices. The crowds thickened as we approached Church Street, but the continued construction around the new Oculus prevented the area from getting overwhelming.
We took up a position between the two reflection pools and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, an irregular shard of metal emerging from the middle of the square. After talking it over for a few minutes, we decided that I would go and see them museum while Gung-Gung waited outside (he had already seen the museum). As I stood in line, waiting for the clock to catch up to the entry time on my ticket, I noticed how many young children were in line with me. Their hands were often tightly clasped within their parent’s fingers. Finally, as we began to walk out of the line and into the security check, I heard one of them say, “I feel sad already.”
It wasn’t until I was seated in the small, slightly inclined theatre and watched the introductory film, “Facing Crisis,” that I was able to crack the sensation of being a tourist and allow myself to feel some emotions. The fear, pain, and shock still written on the faces of George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani were clear enough to remind me that our politicians were and are still very much human.
The memorial section of the building evoked a crypt. Outside the entrance and the screening room, the space descends underground. As you go there are enormous relics: a staircase, a steel beam, a firetruck, a wall of original foundation, and a wall that served as an oversized tombstone during the days following the attack. It is a cavernous space, the memorial room.
Perhaps it is the openness and immensity of the first part of the building that makes the museum section feel claustrophobic. However, there is something else at work there. The claustrophobia is temporal as well as spatial; the attacks are still too recent in our memory to grieve properly. We haven’t figured out how this fits into our national story, so everything has been imbued with historical significance: refuse, business letters, personal affects and tchotchkes, but also magazines, TV clips, and radio recordings. In fact the verisimilitude is remarkably effective at making one feel like a participant in the events and emotions of the day, so effective that it feels strangely coercive. There is a tension between the desire to record and the desire to honor.
I rode a long escalator back to the surface and the sunlight of the August day. The escalator was softly lit with blue footlights, and Americana music played through hidden speakers, easing the transition from the cave back to the surface. It was still a shock going from the quiet air conditioned museum to the cacophonous, humid city.
The actual memorial sculptures, the two black squares that contain and release the crashing water into the reflecting pools are hardly imposing. They seem to be as much safety barriers as they are icons of remembrance, even though some unspoken agreement keeps people from leaning on them to look down into the seemingly endless pool on the other side. The water fluctuates from soothing white noise to restless rumble, as if it can’t quite decide whether is should stop, or take one more trip through the pipes.