Monday, April 22, 2013

On Selling a Tragedy

Fair warning: this post is very different to what I usually write here. It is very much about how I am feeling in response to what I have recently been seeing and experiencing and isn't particularly upbeat. But I hope you'll read it anyway

My mother-in-law is in town. This means, of course, that we're doing all sorts of NYC touristing. As part of that, and out of interest, she wanted to visit the September 11th Memorial. We were there earlier today. This post is a reflection on that visit, but also on a visit we had yesterday to St. Paul's Chapel.

Let me start out by stating this: the events of September 11, 2001 were tragic. They were horrific. I was a sophomore in college in the middle of Missouri and I can still tell you what I was doing when I learned things were happening. I can recall how I spent the majority of that day. It was a huge and horrible event. I am sorry for the lives that were lost.

Yesterday we popped into St. Paul's chapel en route to a ride on the Staten Island Ferry (since Liberty Island is closed, it makes no sense to pay the park entry fee to merely ride a boat near the island. The ferry is free). I walk by this church often, but it's usually in the evening when things are closed. It was open. I love old churches. So we went in. I was quite surprised. This is the oldest public building in NYC. But in the past 10 years the pews have been removed. There is little mention of the history of the church other than 2 small plaques near the surviving 2 pew boxes. The rest of the church (an active church, I should note) is a museum of sorts to September 11th. Signs, displays, hangings, videos, posters, etc. etc. etc. This church did indeed play a large part in helping the community during that tragic event, but it is so much more than "the 9/11 chapel." What it has seen! What it has survived! The church has a storied past and yet it seems to currently only exist as a touristy remembrance spot and publicly accessible restroom.

Down the street, Trinity Church (head of the parish which St. Paul's is a part) has a lovely museum in the back. It speaks of the history of Trinity and also a bit of St. Paul's. A section of the museum is dedicated to September 11th. It seemed so much more appropriate.

So. Today. We had our tickets and headed to the Memorial. The place itself is tranquil and calm and the reflecting pools did bring tears to my eyes. The thought of what happened there and what lies beneath are very moving. And yet people were laughing and running around and seemed to miss the point. The museum on the grounds is not yet open, but as you exit there is a "visitor center" which is mostly a gift shop. This is where I (and my husband) became a bit disgusted. Bookmarks, keychains, iPhone covers, t-shirts, ski hats - anything any everything brandishing the logo "9/11 Memorial" as if it is something to be sold so easily. The thing that creeped me out the most was the officially branded search & rescue stuffed dog toy. For children. You know, so they (who were not alive at the time of these events) can play at searching for bodies and rescuing those who, with hope, survived?!?! What!? How is that appropriate? How is that in any way a tribute to those who lost their lives? How is that ok?! Signs throughout the gift shop remind you that profits go to sustaining the museum. To me, giving some money in one of the many donation boxes is a far better thing than a mug or a hoodie from a memorial to the lost.

The more this got to me, the more I took note as we walked through the streets of the financial district of just how many people in both official and unofficial capacities make a buck off the memory of the events of 2001. This weekend there was a memorial run. The information area had a cover band playing, donation information booths & staffers, and a police recruitment area. It all seemed very crass. It all seemed very much like clever marketing, in the same way I see logos for corporations slapped on the side of a tshirt for this or that event. I don't like people's experiences and memories being manipulated that way.

Growing up, I learned about Pearl Harbor. Each December 7, I do my best to pause and remember those who died (nearly 2,500) and especially think of those poor souls who went down in their submarines and met a slow and horrific end. Although nearly as many people perished in that event as on September 11, 2001 it seems like our country is dwelling on modern events in a way that has never before been seen in our history. Should we forget? Absolutely not. Should we heal? Yes. The things I see, and the way many in NYC seem to sell this tragedy keep it an open wound. Open for those who lived it, for those who felt it, and even for those who weren't even born yet. To me, that's a concern. I don't think it's good for us as a population. As a human race. Our feelings and memories are not for sale and I don't think we should allow them to be so easily manipulated for profit.

That's what I have to say about that.


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