Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > 9/11 Museum Stirs Memories -- and Protest

Apr 25, 2014

9/11 Museum Stirs Memories -- and Protest

Memories of old conflicts often spark new conflicts. So it's no surprise that there's controversy swirling around the National September 11 Memorial Museum, due to open on May 21, rising from the ashes of the fallen World Trade Center. The Museum will offer visitors a short video about another rising: "The Rise of Al-Qaeda."

After the museum's Interfaith Advisory Group saw a preview, though, “everyone was just like, wow, you guys have got to be kidding me,” according to Peter Gudaitis, who initiated the Group. He and his colleagues spelled out their complaint in a letter to the Museum's director:

Museum visitors who do not have a very sophisticated understanding of the issues could easily come away equating al-Qaeda with Islam generally. ... The video may very well leave viewers with the impression that all Muslims bear some collective guilt or responsibility for the actions of al-Qaeda, or even misinterpret its content to justify bigotry or even violence toward Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (e.g., Sikhs).

But museum officials are so far unmoved. “I don’t see this as difficult to respond to, if any response is even needed,” Clifford Chanin, the education director, wrote in an email to museum directors, which accidentally went to the protesting ministers, priests, rabbi, and imam. (Woops!)  

After that gaffe, some response was obviously needed. Joseph Daniels, head of the foundation that oversees the museum, gave it to the New York Times: "We had a very heavy responsibility to be true to the facts, to be objective, and in no way smear an entire religion when we are talking about a terrorist group. ... We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.”

The question at issue is, apparently, whether the video does smear an entire religion.

But there are deeper questions. Can such a video, or such a museum, ever simply tell the truth through objective facts? If objectivity is a "noble dream" in the writing of history, as Peter Novick put it years ago, it's surely more of a dream in films and museums, where -- even more than in books -- history is not fact but story.

The real question that the critics of the video raise is: What story should the museum tell about the men who allegedly perpetrated the horrendous events of 9/11?

To explore that question, let's first consider another that they did not raise: Why tell the story of Al-Qaeda at all?

The museum is part of a memorial complex at the foot of the new One World Trade Center, now officially declared the nation's tallest skyscraper at exactly 1776 feet. That tower and its official height tell a symbolic story of their own, the story that George W. Bush began telling almost immediately after the attack: “The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test.” “This will be a monumental struggle between good and evil. But good will prevail.”  

One World Trade Center is a monumental way to say "We have prevailed!", that (as Ronald Reagan boasted when the U.S. defeated Grenada in 1983) America and all it has represented since 1776 is still "standing tall." We have passed the test; we and our goodness still tower high above all who would attack or condemn or criticize us.

To tell the whole story, though, there is also (at the foot of the tower) a memorial to the fallen, reminding us how incredibly gruesome the test was and how much blood had to be shed. Yet the memorial's website tells us that "its design conveys a spirit of hope and renewal." Perhaps it should say "resurrection." In a country so steeped in Christian traditions, you don't have to be Christian to get the message (at least unconsciously): The horror of wholly unjustified death is made holy because the victim is risen again, high and mighty, right before our eyes.   

If the tower and memorial tell the story clearly, why need a museum at all? In part, to make sure no visitor misses the symbolic point of the whole complex. In part, to spell out the story in greater detail.

Most importantly, though, the museum adds a crucial piece to the story: This was a battlefield where good met evil in an unusual but very real kind of war, it says. If the tower and memorial tell us who the good people were (and still are), the museum tells us who were (and still are) the bad guys, the perpetrators of this horror.

The video might have been devoted to the heroic rescue efforts on 9/11 or the immense outpouring of generosity that followed. But instead it is devoted solely to a story that might well be called "Who Was -- And Still Is -- Our Enemy?" The hall that houses the video is, in a sense, a theater of war. And right next to it, lest we miss the point, there's a gallery with photographs of the 19 alleged hijackers.

The Interfaith Advisory Group does not object to the video's claim that America faced an enemy on 9/11. It's the more specific message -- our enemies are Muslims -- that has raised protest. In their letter the clergy said that "if generalized labels are needed" to explain the roots of the attack "we suggest using specific terms such as 'Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.'”

This may raise a serious problem for some historians, who see it as their job to provide all the facts and relevant context. Professor Bernard Haykel of Princeton, who vetted the film, spoke for those historians: “The critics who are going to say, ‘Let’s not talk about it as an Islamic or Islamist movement,’ could end up not telling the story at all, or diluting it so much that you wonder where Al Qaeda comes from.”

Where Al-Qaeda comes from is indeed a pressing question for most Americans. However it's not a matter of needing facts, as the museum officials claim. It's a matter of  needing a satisfying story.

What most people want from a war museum is, above all, a story that makes sense, a story that gives us an enemy substantial enough to be meaningful. Ultimately most of us feel safe as long as the world, despite all its conflicts, seems to have some overarching structure to give it sense and meaning.

What if the museum depicts the attackers coming from nowhere in particular, out of the blue, like a tornado? Then there is no meaningful story to tell. 9/11 becomes a senseless, random act, and Americans are left to go on living intolerably precarious lives, no matter how many drone attacks are launched against suspected Al-Qaeda operatives.

So our story must pit an entire good nation against an entire evil one, or two full sets of values and ideologies against each other -- something like the cold war, or World War II (as we remember it now; during World War II itself Americans showed little understanding of or interest in Nazi ideology).

A story about high-tech military robots picking off random, shadowy individuals just doesn't offer the kind of familiar, clear-cut, full-bodied war story that makes sense to most Americans. It certainly can't give meaningful structure to our lives. And meaning is, above all, what the September 11 Memorial Museum seems determined to offer, as any war museum inevitably would.

Even at the risk of stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, however unintentionally? That's the question the Interfaith Advisory Group poses. Since the museum claims to be "the country’s principal institution for ...  exploring the continuing significance of September 11, 2001," the answer it gives will ultimately speak for all America, for a long, long time to come.

Beneath all these complex layers of contestation there lies, unspoken, yet another issue, the deepest of all. The museum and its video do not merely speak for America. They speak, loud clear, about America. They make a profound comment about the mythic vision Americans hold of their own nation.

Whenever we tell a war story, as we define the enemy we are also in some way defining ourselves. Certainly the burden of all George W. Bush's post-9/11 rhetoric was to insist that we are everything the evildoers are not, and vice versa.

Whatever we say about "them" -- and the way we say it -- inevitably says a lot about "us" and who we think we really are. This is why the issue of defining the enemy is so fraught with tension.

The video seems to define America as the "not-Muslim-extremist" nation -- which the protesting clergy fear will all too easily be turned into "America is the not-Muslim nation."

Perhaps those clergy remember World War I, when America so crudely became the "not-German" nation, with many schools banning the teaching of German and many restaurants refusing to serve sauerkraut.

Perhaps they remember World War II and the mass internment of wholly innocent American citizens simply because of their Japanese ancestry.

Perhaps they remember the Korean War, the era when Joseph McCarthy and his followers had such free reign to terrorize loyal Americans with unsubstantiated charges of aiding and abetting the communist enemy.

Ever since early colonial times, when immigrants from Europe could not be sure whether the native Americans were within or without the white community -- because they were in fact both -- there has been a powerful impulse to associate every purported foreign evil with an internal evil and to attack the internal as well as the external in a single war.

Implicitly but very clearly, the protesting clergy are saying we must stoutly resist that impulse. We must avoid even the slightest risk of becoming that sort of intolerant nation again. As we define the enemy of 9/11, we must define ourselves as the most tolerant, all-embracing nation we can be, a nation filled with equal respect for all its inhabitants, whatever their religion or land of origin. The real test we face, they are saying, is whether we can rise to that level of humanity.

Their view of America also has ancient roots. Nearly 400 years ago, one of the earliest Puritan settlers in  New England, Thomas Morton, erected a maypole at his settlement, Merrymount. He welcomed everyone and anyone -- include native Americans -- to enjoy "revels and merriment after the old English custom," as he recalled it, "and therefore brewed a barrel of excellent beer ... with other good cheer, for all comers of that day."  

Morton's open-armed vision of what the New World could be outraged many other Puritans, whom he called, with fine precision, "Separatists." They could not stand the sight of native people joining hands with Puritans to dance around the "pagan" maypole. So Miles Standish led an armed band of these Separatists who angrily chopped it down. By that act they symbolized their dearest belief: Their community could remain pure only by separating itself absolutely from the "savages."

In fact the whole idea of a good, pure, virtuous community would make no sense unless there were "savages" to represent its polar opposite, showing the world clearly what the Separatists were not. The same kind of demand for a clear-cut demonstration of what America is, by contrasting it with what it is not, still echoes across the land today. The National September 11 Memorial Museum and its video stand ready to fulfill that demand.

The conflict over the video is so tense, and so important, because the two sides have such different mythic visions of America. One side wants an America defined by firm resolve to resist and overcome a clearly-defined enemy. The other side wants an America defined by its readiness to embrace the widest possible diversity of humanity.

Museum officials face a band of clergy who are the symbolic descendants of Thomas Morton. Those officials may wish they could solve the problem as quickly and decisively as Miles Standish did, or so the errant email from the museum's education director suggests.

But America is no longer the land of the Separatist Puritans. The demand for a community that welcomes all comers is not so easily stifled. The more it is resisted, the louder it will grow.

Since the museum wants to represent America as a whole, it invites all of us to add our voices to the debate. "For feedback," says its website, "email"  

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