American exceptionalism and American innocence: The misleading history and messages of the 9/11 Memorial Museum

The 9/11 Memorial gets grief profoundly. But the museum cynically exploits tragedy, confuses history with ideology

Published June 9, 2014 11:01PM (EDT)

A FDNY fire truck from Ladder Co. 3, in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.   (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
A FDNY fire truck from Ladder Co. 3, in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

After a dozen years of thinking, planning, disputing, designing, building and — we cannot leave this out — patriotic hyperventilating, we have a museum given over to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. We have a museum and a problem, the one no less important to understand than the other.

There is what happened, there are the victims, and there are we, the living. All are part of the presentation at the site of the World Trade Towers in lower Manhattan.

The chronology of the fateful day is recounted in minute-to-minute fashion, each tiny turn in the dawning tragedy described with a kind of enveloping immediacy. There is no escaping the sensation of being pulled back into the sunny Tuesday morning itself and reliving it, each shout and siren, as is the intended effect.

The victims are present in a nearly infinite collection of artifacts, nothing too small or ephemeral, and in heart-splitting loops of last-minute messages left on voice machines in the searing heat of minutes that simply moved too fast. They are there in catalogs of pictures, thumbnail “Portraits in Grief” (originally published by the New York Times), and in the incessant repetition of names. Individuation is an insistent theme.

The living, we, are honored, too. The museum offers us everything from wrecked fire engines — three, I think — to more tiny artifacts and more voices — recordings of survivors, of the spouses of those lost, of high political figures. “It tells the story of how, in the aftermath of the attacks, our city, our nation, and peoples from across the world came together, supporting each other through difficult times and emerging stronger than ever,” Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor, told NPR on May 15, six days before the doors finally opened.

There is one other story. There is the story of the perpetrators. These are identified not as terrorists, a term I always consider problematic in that it is a descriptive with only two dimensions, but rather resolutely as “Islamic terrorists.” So, problematic twice, this story.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum is what is known as a “site of memory.” This is the term of a French scholar named Pierre Nora, who has written extensively on the meaning of such places and on that space he defines as “between memory and history.” Sites of memory — village-green monuments, cemeteries, old battlefields, Jefferson’s bed at Monticello — are all about how we are supposed to remember.

And so is the 9/11 Museum’s purpose understood. It tells us how we are to remember events that altered Americans’ understanding of themselves, almost certainly forever. In this connection, part of what is commemorated and preserved, on display for further viewing, is the sensation of shock, the barely formed knowledge that an idea of America had just been exhausted.

With reference to his own country’s past, Nora wrote some years ago, “Only a symbolic history can restore to France the unity and dynamism not recognized by either the man in the street or the academic historian.” This is useful. We are constructing a symbolic history at the 9/11 Museum — history shaped to achieve a certain outcome.

We come to the problem aspect. The intended outcome in this project is at least questionable, and I would say undesirable. Nations are eternally manipulating memory and history, fair enough. But the manipulations now on display in lower Manhattan, purporting to express what it means to be American, are inappropriately charged with politics and ideology. In the name of sentiment — and you can never trust the sentimental — come the cynical uses of tragedy.

This column should perhaps be labeled. I will pause here to paste one on.

The loss of 3,000 lives 13 years ago is self-evidently a tragedy, beyond any other thought or feeling. But I decline to mourn this tragedy as invited. I cannot join in the mourning the 9/11 Museum asks us to partake of.

As I argued at length in a book published last year, I view Sept. 11, 2001, as the weirdly abrupt instant when the American Century came to an end. The 3,000 were the final casualties of a passage in history that took — people are trying to count now, but nothing conclusive yet — tens of millions of lives in the service of preserving American primacy.

All of these number deserve to be the true objects of American mourning. So before any reader proposes to excommunicate me from the human race, I stand here: In my refusal to mourn in the official manner lies my mourning. It is a vastly more decent, humane and altogether conscious way to manage one’s sadness, our American sadness.

There is no question of the power that emanates from the 9/11 Museum. The building and its surround are the work of gifted architects. The curators who installed the exhibitions, and all the consultants who must have advised — historians and so on — are plainly skilled in their fields. They got what they set out to get.

Surrounding the museum is the 9/11 Memorial Park. It is a leafy promenade, a place of contemplation, at the center of which are the deep holes where the two towers stood. The holes are lined with black stone; in the center of each is a deeper hole, dropping out of sight as if to some bottomless place. Smooth falls of water descend uniformly along the surfaces of the stone — down, down, then gone.

The effect stops you cold. All thoughts vanish. The black stone seems to enclose grief itself. The holes tell you all about irreparable loss — a perpetual absence, a taking away. And the water suggests nothing so much as the eternal, ever-repeated collapsing of the buildings into nothingness.

The Memorial Park, the design work of Michael Arad, seemed to me precisely the right gesture to mark the tragedy. It is powerful and properly abstracted, meaning cleansing and cathartic, like the Greek tragedies. It reminded me of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington. What more is needed, I wondered as I entered the museum and descended 70 feet into the spotlit darkness where the exhibitions are.

The museum goes to a different purpose, it turns out. This is where the big problem arises. This is where we are told how to remember — and so where sympathy changes shape and comes out as resistance.

Why are we asked to stand before a crumpled business card, or a pair of high heels a survivor carried down dozens of flights, or a briefcase, or a pair of slippers a victim wore in his office? You have to ask, because there is a purpose to these displays of paraphernalia. They are effective, no doubt. But what is the sought-after effect?

The invitation is to remember and remember and remember without end. It is never to leave behind the grief, pain, confusion and fear of the moments marked, but to relive them in a loop. The first inscription one sees, on a plaque mounted by firemen to commemorate lost comrades, reads, “Let us never forget.”

This is a gravely mistaken undertaking. It is an invitation to imprisonment. To remember and relive eternally is to trap ourselves in feeling, leaving us short of thought. The burden of the past never lifts, and we are unfree to live and act in the real time of our lives. Missed altogether is the importance of forgetting. Forgetting — the right kind of forgetting, not our habit of erasing past deeds, or Stalin’s airbrushed histories — liberates.

There is a huge literature dedicated to memory, forgetting and history and how they interact. Pierre Nora is a master in the field, but it goes back further.  Nietzsche’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” is key reading. (It is early Nietzsche, scalable without a Sherpa.)

Properly rendered history is the door to positive forgetting. When events shared by a given people are placed in history, the weight of remembering lifts. People can go on with living, lightly and creatively, confident that the past is well cared for.  “History is the enemy of memory,” Nora tells us.

It is exactly the point. But without the shared history, the shared remembering (social memory, it is called) must continue, a responsibility passed from one generation to the next, for it is the only place to store the past.

Most of us have seen people in this condition, which I term “memory without history.” Guatemalans, Indonesians, Argentines, Chileans and so on: They live in haunted cultures until the atrocities in their past are recorded. Then the clouds lift, and there is renewal.

Most people with memory but no history are deprived of the latter by a dictator, or generals, or a despot of some kind. In the American case, the case the museum advances, the relevant history is too problematic to the American story and is therefore kept out of the presentation. The result can be seen in the subtly developed theme that belief in Islam is the source of the evil on display. Somehow, those we call terrorists were the products of spontaneous generation, the way medieval people accounted for maggots in their meat. No causality.

Effects flow from this erasure of history. Anger and a desire for revenge can be preserved like specimens in jars of formaldehyde. An ideology can be served, and this is the case with the 9/11 Museum. It is the ideology of American righteousness, of American exception, of America as ever the done-to, not the one doing to others.

A comparison will help.

Some years ago I watched the renovation, enlargement and reopening of the museum in Nanjing commemorating the Japanese massacre that took place there (much of it on the very spot, actually) in 1937. Again, a very powerful piece of architecture and exhibitions within full of photographs, diaries, moth-eaten uniforms, bayonets. Again, the museum space buried in a morbid cavern. The place is a shrill shout of anti-Japanese xenophobia, appealing to a consciousness of victimhood among the Chinese one has to understand but deeply, deeply regret.

“Nanjing is an example of coerced remembering,” I wrote in a book afterward. “One will not only remember the massacre but also remember it in a certain way, and one will remember it with a certain response — an emotional response. And to remember it this way is essential, according to the architects of memory, to being Chinese.”

It is an extreme variant of the 9/11 Museum case, but I maintain it sheds light. We can draw a lesson, this one: We do not want to head in this direction, but we are doing so, it would seem with purpose.

Ask yourself this: Should the widow of a victim be co-chair of the museum’s programs committee, as is now the case? In my view it is cynical use of the widow’s sorrow and manipulative of all who enter the museum space. This position is properly assigned to a museum professional with a background in history and well-read in the literature mentioned above.

I do not want to write much about the museum shop full of overpriced trinkets (simply egregious), or the pseudo-documentary on al-Qaida narrated by Brian Williams (same, devoid of any historical context), or the burial of some remains in a section of the museum (talk about cynical, and the protesting parents should not desist). But one other unspoken theme needs to be addressed. It is the theme of American innocence.

All of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks are advanced as innocents. Having studied the Portraits in Grief when the Times brought them out in the autumn of 2001, I view this innocence as an article of faith even as the thought of 100 percent prevalence among 3,000 people is improbable, to put it as mildly as one can.

I made a list of the companies present in the towers and mentioned here or there in the exhibitions: Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Cantor Fitzgerald, Marsh & McLennan, a variety of television broadcasters, tech companies, traders and so on. What does it mean to work in these companies?

I have long asked myself this question in relation to the 9/11 tragedy. One’s employer may do good things or otherwise, but can one claim perfect detachment in any case? These banks, corporations and broadcasters are part of our international system. They play various roles, well enough documented in countless contexts. The choice of the World Trade Center as a target was explicitly an attack on these roles.

It comes to this: There is no such thing as an innocent, not in our world, not in the advanced, overconsuming nations. We are responsible for our choices, how we spend our time, how we earn our livings. To take no interest in global politics or what your company or country does in the world is to take a position — the quietest position, passivity, acquiescence. The point seems obvious, but in the ideology of the museum, the fiction of innocence is among the things preserved. Again, I cannot enter in.

To some, all this will come over as cold and sour. Not at all. I find cold and sour in the calculations of those who boast of the deepest sympathies and the strongest patriotism but fly both banners to advance political and ideological subtexts supporting a version of America’s place in the world useful to their purposes.

There was another way at this, one truly in the service of this country. This was my thought walking out of the 9/11 Museum, through the Memorial Park and past the dignified silence of the sunken pools of black stone and serene flows.

We could today be looking at a constructively conceived commemoration. The narrative plaque at the front could have read something like:

“The navigation of memory, especially when memory has been erased, obliterated or unexplored, is delicate. The events that took place here in 2001 ended a passage in the American story. It is time now to come to terms with this past and then to write it into history. To inspire this is our museum’s purpose. Painful as much of this process will prove, we will cleanse ourselves by it, free ourselves of a shared, unspoken burden, so beginning again. This will mean no one will have died in vain. And this will be our tribute to the 3,000 departed — there could be no better.”

Someday maybe, maybe someday.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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