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No place for slogans as the world remembers 9/11

Tourists at the 9/11 memorial

Tourists take photos at the 9/11 memorial in New York. Rebecca Wilson under a Creative Commons Licence

After complaints by the public, the 9/11 memorial museum gift shop removed a cheese platter in the shape of the United States from its souvenir selection. Purposeful only for banal helpings of cheddar, visitors declared it a vulgar excuse to reap commercial benefit on the back of the terrorist attacks. Tickets to the memorial museum cost $15-$24, and help fund the centre’s $63 million budget – along with maudlin black hoodies and tacky toy ‘rescue dogs’ that have survived the inappropriate-gift cull.

After browsing the museum’s website and bizarre gift shop, I decided not to visit it when I went to New York in July this year. Content to walk around the World Trade Center plaza instead, I sat in the shade of the newly planted oak trees that offer respite from the city’s unyielding heat. Where the towers once stood, sunken waterfalls plunge towards the centre of their foundations into an abyss. A pale mist is carried by the breeze, and cools those standing at the edges, contemplating the scene. The names of the dead cut into the brass flanks that mark out the waterfalls invite quietude, despite the chatter of the crowds and the dull roar of the city that does not let up.

In a year that has seen the centenary of World War One, it feels pertinent to interrogate the nature of public memorial spaces and events. What role does symbolism have in remembering? Is an anniversary a suitable time to cross-examine history? And since many museums are unfunded and must create revenue, who sets the barometer of taste when it comes to gifts?

Symbolism sells – Che Guevara’s face is universal – and it also unifies. But a symbolic act and a symbolic logo have different ends. The latter is material, often commercial and at best speaks shorthand for an idea: red poppies for remembrance, and white for peace. A symbolic act, however, such as a candlelit vigil or a minute’s silence, makes a case for change in the world. It is the gathering of people that gives it potency.

US author Joan Didion wrote, acutely, of the silence that fell across New York in September 2001 in her lecture ‘Fixed Opinions or the Hinge of History’ given at the New York public library; it was as though, disconcertingly, the litany of new US flags that hung from windows in Manhattan said all that was needed that week. Symbolism spoke volumes: of a renewed and unnerving patriotism that had befallen the liberals of New York. She wrote of the silencing of those who spoke up to cross-examine the events – as if analysis was somehow akin to justification of the act. Those who used their platforms to warn the world of the opportunism that Washington would wield to justify its own political gains were deemed traitors.

It was not the silly cheese platter that I found maddening in the 9/11 online gift shop but the slogan on the t-shirts and hoodies:

In Darkness We Shine Brightest

Slogans are reductive. They short-circuit discussion. Hoodies emblazoned with mawkish refrain have no significance in conjunction with terrorism, except to silence critical thought. And history, so it does not duplicate, demands dialogue and inquisition.

In impulsive hands silence and symbolism are easily abused. Cheese platters are harmless, really. What must stay on the surface are the questions that are shaped in the stillness we reflect in – questions that must be asked loudly and clearly to a world that is listening.

After walking around the World Trade Center plaza alone for a while, my friend (an American) and I met by one of the waterfalls and marvelled at the jarring spectacle that was taking place before us: tourists taking photos of themselves or with partners, all over the plaza. Auto-grin faces, fingers held in that ubiquitous V. Two young women approached us – no older than 20 – and asked my friend to take a photo of them. The majority of their lives had been lived in a post-9/11 world, and the event was already a gimmick, a tourist attraction to pose in front of, and I wondered if pointless slogans on hoodies were somehow to blame. My friend reluctantly agreed to take the picture and the women clutched one another, checked their hair and set seductive smiles. The camera clicked, and recorded forever this incongruous scene. 

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