The Idolatry of Pain
I visited the World Trade Center first, I think, when I was 13 or 14. My dad took me. We didn’t go up to the observation deck—he didn’t want to, which he now regrets—but stood at the bottom and looked up towards the tops that we couldn’t see. That week, Cats made a far greater impression on me—that and a pro music shop I found off Times Square. When I think of pre-September 11th New York City, I think of the episode of The Simpsons when they go to New York City to retrieve Homer’s car, which is illegally parked in WTC Plaza.
I next visited the World Trade Center in the summer of 2002. I was in New York for a writing workshop. The tributes and missing posters tied to the fence St. Paul’s made me cry. The observation deck, where you could see the wreckage, I don’t actually remember—rather, I remember waiting in line at the observation deck, but I don’t remember looking in the hole that used to be the world’s tallest skyscrapers. I don’t remember what I saw.
And I visited today, October 30th, 2011. I’ve lived in NYC for a year now, but this is the first time I’ve made a trip downtown (and I’m not even really here for the World Trade Center; I’m here to see the Occupy Wall Street protests). Post-Freedom Tower construction. Post-tenth anniversary.
I discover that you have to have a ticket to visit the memorial garden, which feels wrong, even though it’s free (later reconnaissance online tells me that they are doing this in order to ease foot traffic while construction is going on, which makes sense, but still, on the day of, I was perturbed). And there are at least two visitors centers/tickets vendors/gift shops/museums-in-progress. It’s a little sick, that the emotion that came out of September 11th has become something we buy. I know it’s been that for awhile, but when you’re ½ a block away from the mass grave of 2900 people, it just feels inappropriate. This is how it is with disasters: either we forget them when the news cycle fades (as towns devasted by tornados discover), or we enshrine them with kitsch and capitalism. I dread the day that Hurricane Katrina gets herself a museum with a gift shop.
How does the official storefront of the 911 Memorial compare to the impromptu, heartfelt, disorganized memorial that the fence outside St. Paul’s became? There’s no more flags, no more color. No more origami cranes in long chains folded by schoolchildren from around the world. Instead there’s official, permanent signage, condensing weeks of pain and chaos into well-organized paragraphs describing the church’s role in rescue and recovery efforts. People go into the church, and through the 250-year-old graveyard behind, and all of them are clutching professionally printed information packets. I wonder how many are here for the church, and how many are here for September 11th?
The World Trade Center is part of the mythology of New York for me, part of its symbolism, still very much a part of its skyline, and yet I feel very little connection to the towers themselves. Maybe this makes me a bad person, this lack of a connection, this lack of sentimentality—both to the towers then and their memorial now. Columbine and Katrina are the disasters that shattered me. The World Trade Center just makes me feel sad and tired. It looms so large in the American psyche, and part of me feels that the American psyche can have it. I don’t want any part in the endless storytelling and memorializing and tears. I don’t want any part of its politicization, to people using it as an excuse to do this or that, to people who claim to know what happened that day and what it means. I don’t want to sell people little microscopic models of the towers that say nothing about the immensity that they actually had. I don’t want posters with “Never Forget” emblazoned across the bottom. At some point, iconography becomes idolatry.
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