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The Uncivil Servant: What’s the Message of the September 11th Museum?

Mitchell Abidor
May 22, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor world Trade Center embossThe New York Times published an article on May 16 about people’s reactions to the opening of the September 11 Memorial Museum, in which I was quoted as saying, “I won’t visit it anytime soon. It promises to be filled with gawking, ghoulish out-of-towners who will overwhelm the New Yorkers, who lived through the sorrow of those days and will have a hard time getting in.” My wife questioned the legitimacy of my point of view, and my dismissal of visitors as “ghoulish gawkers,” since we had just spent time visiting museums dedicated to the victims of state terrorism in Argentina and Uruguay. I insisted that those museums had a clear lesson to teach about the dangers of dictatorship and the fragility of human rights — and, not incidentally, were dedicated to the memory of people whose ideals I shared, whose beliefs were mine, and whose fate I might well have shared had Grandma and Grandpa gotten off the boat in Buenos Aires rather than Ellis Island. What, then, is the meaning of the new museum in Lower Manhattan? What lesson is it trying to teach as the general lesson of September 11th? We have all heard the constant calls never to forget, but what can they possibly mean? Who will forget planes flying into buildings in the heart of Manhattan and the death of thousands of simple New Yorkers? Not to forget means nothing when we don’t know what we’re remembering. It should never be forgotten, for example, that for us in the U.S., this attack was a one-off. Whatever subsequent damage was done was self-inflicted: our liberties and privacy attacked, the thousand petty indignities of daily life, the hell that travel has become. (And let us also not forget that despite the millions of hours passengers have spent waiting on line to get onto planes since 2001, the two passengers caught trying to blow up passenger planes were caught by the passengers — as a result of which we have to take off our shoes and have ourselves photographed in our underwear.) Let us also recall September 11th as the anniversary of another horrific event, the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in a coup, backed and financed by the U.S., which put an end to a democracy and caused infinitely more death and destruction, and over a far longer span of time, than our own September 11th. What is the lesson that should be learned from September 11th? It’s certainly not the hypocritical one that “they” hate our freedoms. The U.S. is no freer than any country in Western Europe, South America, or the Antipodes, so it’s only our national egotism that could present that as a lesson. And since we have showed ourselves so willing to surrender those freedoms “they” hate us for, it surely doesn’t apply. What infuriated us at the time was the notion that innocent civilians could be killed en masse the way they were, and this is where the real lesson lies. Let us leave aside the noxious idea that somehow we deserved the attacks, or that their gravity should be relativized because of our depredations all over the world. None of that justifies the attacks of September 11th. The lesson is really much simpler: It is wrong to attack civilians. This, at bottom, is what we all felt. This is what enraged us. This is what we should have learned. We should have learned humility. We should have learned, now that we have felt the wound in our own flesh, that attacking cities, attacking people going to work, to breakfast, to meet friends, is wrong. Instead, in the name of September 11th, we launched two wars, killing countless civilians, and a campaign of drone terror that has sickened the world. We learned that we must attack before being attacked, and have rained real terror on people in order to forestall potential terror. We converted the lesson of humility into another excuse for arrogance, and for feeling — and exerting — our national superiority. We patted ourselves on the back for rising from the rubble, as if that is some unique event in world history, as if life in London was suspended during the Blitz, as if Hanoi was a ghost town during the Vietnam War. I have no doubt that the museum is a moving place. But when visitors see the remains of that day, the knickknacks left behind by the dead, the burned-out fire trucks, they should never forget that cities throughout the world could — and probably do — have the same artifacts, and that dead Afghans or Iraqis (or Japanese or Koreans of an earlier time) are no less dead than Americans killed on September 11th, and their deaths are no less sad for their being Afghan or Iraqi (or Japanese or Korean). Once the sadness of visiting the museum has passed, the items in the museum risk serving to inflame our worst side, which is never far below the surface: Visitors will buy their ridiculous and degraded gifts at the gift shop (plush rescue dogs! NYPD badge charms!), and “never forget” will become yet another reminder that we are somehow better than everyone else, our sorrows sadder than anyone else’s, and that all is permitted us when we seek revenge. This is why I have no intention of visiting the museum. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.