The selling of 9/11

We're buying schlock because we want to remember. But the more we stock up on canned memorabilia, the faster we'll forget.

Published September 7, 2002 7:21PM (EDT)

In America, we grieve by buying stuff. Shopping soothes us, reassures us that we're coping, that we're moving on. Less than a month after Sept. 11, the "America: Open for Business" campaign was born, calling upon citizens to seek revenge and healing through retail. One year later, despite our diminished purchasing power, there is more succor for sale, this time through products aimed at reconciling the avalanche of emotions we experienced after last fall's tragedy.

Suddenly a dizzying range of merchandise is available to commemorate the tragedy, from full-color photography books to NYPD policeman dolls to crystal replicas of the twin towers. Sifting through the consumer fallout from 9/11 can incite the kind of cultural vertigo heretofore only achieved by spending several hours in a Graceland giftshop. The same sad images adorn every mug, ashtray, T-shirt and figurine imaginable, each the reflection of a nation that embraces and commodifies tragedy. By trivializing the tragic, we reduce its proportions enough to put it behind us.

Are the creators of these products giving voice to the pain we share, or are they exploiting that pain by shamelessly cashing in on tragic circumstances? In a country as commercially saturated as ours, maybe we're past the point of caring either way. We're soaking in it. The more important question may be, could any event have an impact dramatic enough to bestride our culture's ability to swallow it whole, only to excrete beach towels and bumper stickers a few months later?

Sept. 11 was supposed to be that big event, the one that would remain immune to our culture's chirpy, reductive forces once and for all. We watched the towers collapse on live TV, and felt ourselves a part of the tragedy. We would not let the hungry demon of pop culture near this one, no matter how loudly it whined and drooled over the commercial potential of human suffering -- American human suffering -- on such a large scale.

This was the horror to end all whores. There would be no tasteless jokes, no chipper, digitally rendered news logos spinning toward us declaring "A Nation Mourns" or "Avenging the Dead," no pseudo-serious lifestyle stories about fashion in the wake of Sept. 11. Of course, the cheesy slogans and news logos began after only a few days -- TV news has all the self-restraint of a hyperactive 3-year-old. But for weeks, even the most blatant huckster was hesitant to push his wares on a country in pain. There were supportive messages: American flags, I heart NY T-shirts, but nothing too expensive or weird, just the sort of rah-rah merchandise you'd find at Astro games and cheerleading camps. We were in pain. We wanted to help. Selling stuff -- and buying it -- was beside the point.

But without stuff, how would we heal? How would we signal to ourselves that the coast was clear, that life could get back to normal? Thus, one year later, the grace period for good taste has officially expired, and the stores are brimming with 9/11 merchandise. While the heartfelt homemade memorials to victims might've made you swallow back tears, the commercial artifacts of this tragedy will make you swallow back something else entirely.

From twin towers commemorative pins to "Gone But Not Forgotten" sweatshirts, businesses are scrambling to give you a purchasable outlet for your pain. Who would've thought a year ago these two buildings, buildings that many claimed scarred an otherwise classic skyline with their blocky modern outline, would be replicated on everything from pendants to porcelain plates? Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that just five years after the Abner Louima brutality case, kids would cherish a doll dressed up as an NYPD cop.

And here we are, a part of the problem, digesting the unbearably sad and spitting it out as a rant to read over your coffee break. Still, is it possible to navigate the mountain of bizarre products related to Sept. 11, to gaze at the cultural digestive process in action, without an occasional derisive snort? These aren't just commemorative pins, mind you. Instead it seems that there's a 9/11 product to match every target demographic: Love kids? Then you'll want to pick up "The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9-11." Art buff? Maybe you'd like a $440 replica of the New York skyline. Self-help enthusiast? Perhaps you'd like to browse "The Sept. 11 Syndrome: Seven Steps to Getting a Grip in Uncertain Times." Prefer to tackle your emotions by purchasing a painted commemorative plate instead? You've got it.

Or maybe those stickers of Calvin peeing on stuff are more your speed. Why not get a sticker of Calvin peeing on the words "bin Laden"? Finally, a cultural artifact with all the sophistication and subtlety of a "The Ayatollah is an Assahollah!" T-shirt. And don't forget the Osama bin Laden golf balls, the "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters, the Osama toilet paper ("Help wipe out terrorism!"), and Osama "Pin" Laden voodoo dolls.

And that only covers the products directly related to the events of last September. For every World Trade Center blown glass ornament, there's a universe of New York skyline T-shirts, an American flag ashtray, and a beach towel adorned with American eagles. Thomas Kinkade, marketing savant and so-called "Painter of Light," has released a new series of paintings craftily titled "Hometown Pride," the first in his remarkably timely "American Memories" series.

And the rampant overuse of the word "hero" in everything from political speeches to pop songs continues, as we strain to turn the most depressing event and circumstance into a chance to perform our favorite song and dance of enforced cheer and virile chest-beating. The FDNY even put out a "Calendar of Heroes" -- a calendar of heroes with their shirts off, more specifically. Firemen striking macho poses with their man-titties shining in the sun like huevos rancheros may have always turned you on, but this year you can take pride in knowing that your dollars go to a good cause, and that those fireman fantasies you've nurtured since high school are utterly patriotic.

Ultimately, nothing personifies our tweaked love of media-as-spectacle more than a coffee table book filled with page after page of full-color tragedy. Imagine: One thrillingly apocalyptic scene after another, printed on thick, high-quality paper, for guests to absentmindedly peruse while sipping cocktails before dinner. As horrifying as it may have felt for that unknown office worker to be covered from head to foot in fine gray ash, it's perhaps more horrifying that we might gaze idly at her moment of terror as a means of stirring up our emotions and reacquainting ourselves with our own mortality -- but just for a few minutes, while we're waiting for those game hens to come out of the oven.

The grandiose language bandied about by these tchotchke makers is worth the price of admission alone:

"The season of color -- the colors are red, white, and blue. Colors that honor America -- the volunteers, firefighters, police, families and victims of the tragedies in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. Now, there are two more colors -- sterling silver and 14k gold. Drue Sanders Custom Jewelers is proud to announce the creation of a commemorative pin, in either 14k gold or sterling silver. The pin is in the shape of the Pentagon, with the design featuring the American flag, the shape of New York State, and the words "United We Stand" and "God Bless America." These beautiful pins are available at a fraction of their retail value, and partial proceeds from their sale will be donated to the New York City World Trade Center Relief Fund."

Naturally, most of the retailers donate part of their proceeds to one of the many 9/11-related funds. Whether this is the main point of the product or merely a necessity to ensure sales, it's impossible to tell in most cases. Some claim that all of the proceeds and profits will go to the fund, others reveal that a specific amount -- from $1 to $5, generally -- will go to the fund; still others claim that "some portion" of the profits will be donated, but presumably we're supposed to leave it up to the creator of the product how much they'd like to donate once they turn a profit.

But as easy as it may be to write off all 9/11-related merchandise as the work of opportunistic trinket peddlers, it's realistic to assume that many of these efforts began, at least, in an attempt to translate some difficult feelings into action. Given the vast numbers of us who felt moved to do something, anything, in the wake of 9/11, whether to honor its victims, reconcile our guilt at surviving, guard against further attacks, or simply peel ourselves from the TV and the papers and escape an overwhelming feeling of frustration, anger and helplessness, the current glut of commemorative commodities makes perfect sense.

Most of us in this country went through hell that week a year ago. However self-centered and pathetic we might be for shuffling around in our socks for weeks after Sept. 11, glassy-eyed and stunned, while we barely let the slaughter of millions of Rwandans spoil our breakfasts, the fact remains that we experienced something horrifying, and we experienced it together. To chalk up all the merchandise to blind greed is to ignore the obvious fact that we shared an unforgettable experience, and in America, we mark the unforgettable less with ceremonies than with souvenirs.

Ultimately, attempting to discriminate between genuinely motivated and authentic products and those that emerged, full-formed, from the heads of the cynical and the greedy may be beside the point. More telling than why we create such merchandise may be the question of why we buy it. Why do we seek to relive the tragedy over and over, through memorials, documentaries, tours of Ground Zero, and full-color photography books?

Many of the sites dedicated to Sept. 11 merchandise repeat the mantra that it's important to remember, to never forget, what happened last fall. But do we want to remember in order to honor those who died, or have we tethered our boats to Sept. 11 out of a hunger for meaning, at a time when events with irrefutable, long-lasting impact are hard to come by, and news of an end-of-summer clearance sale is delivered with more hysteria than news of a typhoon in South Korea that killed 100 people?

While most of us are undeniably making a genuine attempt to remember the victims of 9/11, there's also a strange part of us that wants to experience a piece of the pain for ourselves. No matter how many times we see those planes slamming into those skyscrapers, we're never satisfied that we're close enough to the center of the suffering. Those of us who weren't directly affected, who didn't lose someone close to us, may have been searching for some big event to focus on.

We take to distraction naturally, as a society -- we're constantly in search of the next big event that can focus us outside of ourselves, whether it be a tropical storm brewing off the coast of Florida, a baseball strike threatening to delay the World Series, or a wildfire raging out of control in East L.A. We're unduly fixated on the steady flow of novelty fed to us through minute-to-minute updates, a constant barrage of breaking news, the latest numbers from the stock market, the latest horoscope, the latest figures on which movies pull in the most each weekend, the latest college football scores.

Maybe it's the ease with which we took in the spectacle of Sept. 11 and then cast it out again that haunts us. After weeks of watching TV and reading the paper and feeling sick to our stomachs, when we thought we'd never get over it, life suddenly returned to normal. Purchasing these little trinkets might be our way of pledging that we won't forget this event like we forget everything else on the pop-cultural conveyor belt.

But in some ways, buying stuff means we'll forget even faster. In America, pledging to remember is just another step on the road to forgetting. We buy new games and plan trips and put together photo albums and take vacations and shoot video and save ticket stubs, just to file it all away and move on to the next style, the next technology, the next car, couch, dress, job, the next distraction. Our screens are updated and refreshed constantly, we don't have to move a muscle to move forward, we don't have to think at all to change our minds, to put the last choice behind us.

Five basketball seasons, 53 movies, seven hair colors, two gym memberships, four long distance carriers, three girlfriends and two e-mail addresses from now, we'll be scrapping those commemorative plates at a yard sale. In America today, those who can't remember the past for more than two seconds without getting interrupted by their cellphones may be condemned to repeat it.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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