With The National 9/11 Memorial And Museum Opening, It's Time We Confront The Truth

by John Haltiwanger

This past week, the National September 11th Memorial and Museum was opened to the public in New York City. Already, it has begun to generate controversy.

The memorial is equipped with a museum shop, and as NPR notes, "Selling souvenirs at the memorial is prompting complex reactions, with some people complaining that a gift shop at such a hallowed site is in poor taste."

Perhaps it is wrong, and one could say that the shop is profiting off a national tragedy and the deaths of others.

On the other hand, the memorial is not funded by the government, and 60 to 70 percent of its budget comes from online ticket sales and the gift shop.

Accordingly, one could argue that people need a place to come and reflect on the awful events of that day, and a little commercialization is necessary in order for this to be possible.

At the same time, in many ways, it might be too soon to memorialize an event that we are still trying to come to terms with. The impact of 9/11, in terms of US foreign policy and the War on Terror, is still ongoing.

Basically, one could argue that a monument is meant to be a place for reflection, but are we really in a good position to begin wholeheartedly reflecting on 9/11?

The War in Iraq barely just ended, the War in Afghanistan is coming to a halt but the United States still has troops there; Guantanamo Bay is still open, and drones continue to be utilized to target and kill "terrorists" in several countries that the United States is not currently at war with.

Shouldn't the 9/11 memorial also be a place to reflect on the consequences of that fateful day? To put it in a different context, would people have found it appropriate if a memorial had been built for Pearl Harbor in the midst of WWII?

Furthermore, the museum has also generated controversy over a seven-minute film it will screen for visitors. The film is entitled, "The Rise of Al Qaeda," and refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as jihad.

There are worries that this film offers a very generalized depiction of Islam, and could perpetuate some awful stereotypes surrounding the religion and the Middle East. As noted in a fantastic article from the New York Times:

The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are often used to describe extremist Muslim ideologies. But the problem with using such language in a museum designed to instruct people for generations is that most visitors are “simply going to say Islamist means Muslims, jihadist means Muslims,” said Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington.

“The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” Dr. Ahmed said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

I am currently 25, and was 13 on September 11, 2001. Like many people from my generation, it was an extremely formative event for me. I remember that day vividly. I was in the 8th grade, it was a Tuesday morning and I had drama class.

Shortly after school started, the principal came on the loudspeaker and said that we were on lockdown due to a national emergency. I grew up in and around Washington DC, and my school was in Maryland, just several miles from the DC border.

As a 13-year-old with a vivid imagination, I was under the impression that we were being invaded, as nothing like that had ever happened at school. My teacher left the room with a terrified expression on his face. Several minutes later, he returned.

"I'm not supposed to tell any of you this, they don't want y'all to panic, but two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York," he said, as his face became extraordinarily pale.

A girl in the classroom had an uncle in the towers, and she immediately began to sob inconsolably. We later found out that he died when the towers collapsed.

Later that day, I also found out that a family I knew had been on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. I had been in a musical with a little girl in the family, and they had also attended my church.

They were moving to Australia and were on a connecting flight to Los Angeles. She was an adorable little girl, and I remember thinking, "You'd have to be the most evil person in the world to want her dead."

The events of that day were traumatic for everyone.  Every American, and in many ways the entire world, was deeply impacted by that day.

I'm sure, like myself, most people can remember the most minute details of their day. Memory is so dynamic and complex, and trauma is almost always engraved more deeply in our minds than almost any other events in our lives.

One of the first questions I found myself asking after 9/11 was, "Why do they hate us?" This was, in fact, a question that President George W. Bush addressed directly in a speech that he gave shortly after the attacks.

He essentially argued that they hated our values, our freedom, our very way of life. Basically, Bush argued that they were envious of us:

"They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

As a country in grief, with a rejuvenated sense of patriotism and solidarity, this was an easy argument to accept.

Writing for the New York Times on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Ahmed Rashid, in reference to the question of "why do they hate us," aptly described the confusing sentiment of the weeks and months following 9/11:

It wasn’t clear just who “they” were — Muslims, Arabs or simply anyone who was not American. The easy answer that many Americans found comforting was equally vague: that “they” were jealous of America’s wealth, opportunities, democracy and what have you.

Of course we weren't to blame. How could we be? What could the United States have done to provoke such violence, hatred, death, and destruction?

As a naive young man who grew up believing the United States selflessly stood for the freedom of all people around the world, this was the view that I initially accepted.

As the War on Terror raged on, however, and as it was revealed that the narrative of 9/11 was essentially hijacked in order to garner support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, I became disillusioned with the country that I thought I knew.

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we were torturing people who weren't guilty and imprisoning them without trial and invading countries without international approval. This was not the America that I had been taught about in school.

Terrorism is abhorrent, whether it is conducted by a state or a non-state actor. Violence against innocents should never be acceptable, period. What happened on 9/11 was absolutely horrendous, tragic and devastating.

None of the people who died on that day deserved to have their lives cut short. Yet, our initial response to those events was still inadequate, and clouded by emotive irrationality. Most of us did not even begin to think about the way in which America's dubious activities abroad could have driven people to such radicalism and violence.

It was much easier to make the argument that they were jealous because it meant that we weren't to blame, that we hadn't done anything to provoke the attacks.

Basically, many of us ignored the impact of American imperialism, and accepted a narrative that the United States is always in the right. We ignored our history and activities abroad.

This is not to say that the 9/11 attacks were justified, but that perhaps most Americans were initially unwilling to accept or even acknowledge that their country could have done something to drive people towards such violent extremism. In many ways, this is understandable, as it is difficult to see things clearly after a tragedy. Grief can be blinding.

The week after 9/11, the New Yorker enlisted many of its most prominent staff writers and contributors to offer their thoughts on the events of that day. In this collection of essays, Susan Sontag, the novelist, masterfully captured the notion that the general and initial response to 9/11 was insufficient and misguided:

The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

The point is, we didn't learn our lesson. Following the attacks, we rushed into two wars that have accomplished very little, and in many ways made things much worse.

The United States responded to an act of terrorism with more violence and terror, and continues to do so with its drone campaigns. Hence, for those people visiting the 9/11 memorial, perhaps this is what should be reflected upon.

What have we done as a response to 9/11? Was it worth it? Was it necessary? How can we truly honor the memories of those who died on that day?

I hope that the memorial and museum inspire people to ask these difficult questions, while also bringing comfort to those who lost family members and loved ones on that terrible day.

This is not to say that the United States is an overwhelmingly negative entity in this world. We have a generally progressive narrative and history, but sometimes our unabashed patriotism blinds us from the truth.

Nothing is perfect in this world, and throughout its history, the US government has often engaged in activities that have had an extremely detrimental impact on many people across the globe.

The fact of the matter is that governments, like people, can be selfish and corrupt, but they are also very complex. The history of the United States is not black and white; neither is the world, it is dynamic and convoluted.

Accordingly, our black and white response to 9/11 ignored the complex reality before us. If we truly want to honor the memories of those who perished on September 11, 2001, all of us must play a greater role in our country's governance, which includes becoming more actively engaged and interested in US foreign policy.

Thomas Jefferson once stated, "No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity." We would do well to heed his advice.

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