In April, I visited the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It was not my first visit, and I’m sure it will not be the last one. I visited with a group of fellow writers, and we took the subway down. Even though I lived in the Bronx, I had not taken the subway in quite some time, a year or more. I simply had no need. Where I was living at the time, driving became more important than using the subway.
On the way down, I was reminded of why I disliked the subway. The noise levels were way too loud. A study done by researchers from the University of Washington and Columbia University in 2009 concluded that some subway platforms were equivalent to listening to a chainsaw. I moved to New York in 2004, but it wasn’t until four or more years later—after discovering that I had hearing loss—that I started to wear earplugs when riding the subway. Someone who was studying to be an audiologist told me that hearing loss wasn’t natural, although people generally assumed that it was.
So, we took the subway, and I forgot my earplugs. But I endured. Getting off at Fulton Street, we walked west, passing St. Paul's Chapel, which I informed a couple of ladies in the group of its history: 'Following our country’s first presidential inauguration, George Washington attended church services here.'
How old the Chapel was became obvious when we walked past the gravestones in the rear of the property. Some were made of marble. Some sandstone. The sandstone ones, if not toppled over or broken at center, were chipped away at the tops, green at the sides and bottoms from moss. Some of the inscriptions, as old as 1704, were crude looking. It was amazing that anything here—located directly across the street from the former Twin Towers—survived the fallout of 9/11.
Past St. Paul’s, the “Oculus,” as it's called, quickly came into view. It, the main railway station of the rebuilt World Trade Center, was not exactly an aesthetically pleasing piece of architecture. Major construction was completed in 2016, but long before that, complaints came in that it looked more like the bare bones of a dead giant animal. The Oculus was an impressive or imposing piece of art nevertheless. Its glass and steel structure rose in an arc 160 feet above the floor of the below ground area, i.e. where the retail shops are located, where we, short on time, didn’t travel. We instead walked through the ground-level area on our way to the Memorial. The station house was intended to resemble a dove in flight or, according to its designer, 'a bird flying from the hands of a child,’ but its 114 protruding, bone-like spires, which make up the bird’s “wings,” were hard to appreciate upon first view.
The Memorial area was much more accessible than when I last visited. The sea of green, vibrant, swamp white oaks always invited peace, tranquility and quiet reflection, making it hard for me, someone who only saw the Twin Towers in movies or on TV, to imagine the destruction and chaos to befall New York on 9/11.
One of the Memorial’s employees, Anthony Gardner, greeted us and explained the surrounding space. Anthony lost his brother, who had worked in the North Tower, on 9/11, and being that only sixty percent of recovered remains have been identified, the Memorial for many is sacred ground. It acts as a tombstone or final resting place.
Someone asked if the names inscribed in bronze surrounding the reflective pools included those who got sick from but did not die immediately as a result of 9/11. They do not. According to Anthony, only those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC on 9/11 as well as those who died as a result of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing have their names inscribed.
Following a brief description of the Survivor Tree, the only tree to emerge from the Trade Center rubble and be successfully nursed back to life by the New York City Parks Department, Anthony left the group, which was then lead into the Museum by another Memorial employee.
Excluding the beginning of the Museum, which we were guided through, it for the most part was self-explanatory. A large map depicting the flight paths of the four hijacked planes showed each path in solid red lines. The red lines turned into short red dashes as they looped or sometimes hooked south or east representing the moment when the planes were hijacked. The time each plane crashed was listed in big silver letters. Plane parts and other destroyed equipment such as entire motor vehicles were placed out on display. A loop of Today Show host Matt Lauer on the morning of 9/11 played on a small TV. Two answering machine recordings of a man calling his wife from the Trade Center before the South Tower was struck looped on a speaker overhead.
It was a sad scene that brought tears to mostly everyone present. It’s hard for someone like me not to get teary-eyed. I was not in New York on 9/11, but I assume I’m like most Americans old enough to remember that fateful day, a day of fear, uncertainty and pain. The hijackers had not just attacked New York, DC and Pennsylvania, but as symbolically represented by the over ninety flags that hung in the Museum's pavilion, over ninety countries across the globe, all of which lost citizens in the attacks. An indiscriminate attack, 9/11 was discriminate in that it was an attack on Western civilization. More pointedly, it was an attack on America for being America. I would not know firsthand how an attack like this felt until my fellow National Guard soldiers and I were hit with roadside bombs during our deployment to Iraq in 2004.
In acclaimed war journalist Sebastian Junger’s latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger talks about how horrific events like 9/11 bring people closer together than they would be otherwise: “The last time the United States experienced that kind of unity was—briefly—after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately. In many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime.” This is stated toward the end of the book. Earlier on, Junger provides the anecdote of Nidžara Ahmetašević, a civilian survivor of the 1992 to 1995 war in Bosnia, who is quoted as saying, “Whatever I say about war, I still hate it.” And that’s what I more or less come away with when visiting places like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. While the Memorial is beautiful and while it and the Museum are fitting tributes to those who lost their lives and/or family members on that fateful day, I still wish that they had not been built, that there was no reason for them to be built, that there was no reason for our country’s unity or the world's unity in the fall of 2001.