Hyper-patriotism in the heart of Manhattan: My visit to the 9/11 memorial

 I visited the National September 11 Museum, more out of curiosity, rather than any sense of wanting to know more about the tragedy that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. While most of us know the facts – enough to know the bad guys, the heroism of the people involved and the reactions from dubya and what transpired later on, what is not so well known is the narrative of 9/11 and how it is being shaped. While I respect the sentiment with which the memorial was built – to honor the lives of 2,977 people who died on that fateful day- the execution of this vision leaves much to be desired. While the memorial is beautiful, the museum fails on many accounts.

Photos by author.
Photos by author.

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First off, I must lay bare my own normative biases – I am not a huge fan of memorials – of any kind- and in particular those of the type that are particularly nationalistic or jingoistic. The only exception to this is the Taj Mahal, which is also a memorial, but considered a wonder of the world, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. While I don’t consider nationalism to be utter nonsense, but let’s say that I am deeply skeptical of a project built entirely on just one identity – often based on exclusion, false pride and a visceral suspicion of the other. That is just not me.

The museum is somewhat of an aberration. It is based in perhaps the greatest city in the world – New York – a city that I truly believe represents freedom, diversity; but ironically is highly securitized and represents ‘unfreedom.’ A fact that Adam Gopnik highlights in this New Yorker story. The level of securitization just before one enters the museum is quite shocking, and one feels as if one is about to take off on an aircraft, bound to enter the ‘free world,’ except that one is leaving this free world to enter a world where one is quite literally held hostage. To the credit of the museum curators, the exhibits are quite well organized and often detailed with audio recordings – of the people who were trapped in the towers, of the fire fighters who risked, and often lost lives saving those of others and also that of an astronaut, who said something thoughtful about this tragedy from space.

The museum itself is hard to find. I took the subway to reach the closest station, near the Financial district. Walking around, I got lost twice, having passed West Street, from where one can enter the ticketing area. On reaching the ticketing area, I was finally met by a line of about 100 people before me and the possibility of entering the museum three hours later. Given the summer season and high volume of visitors, this was the earliest I could go. I decided to buy the ticket ( $18 for students, $24 for regular adults). As someone who frequented Smithsonians in Washington D.C. ( all of which are free entry), I feel this is too steep a price to pay. Thank the lord that I am a student and can get some discounts, even if it is $ 6 – enough to buy me a falafel sandwich on the street side food cart. A more scathing review of the museum is here.

On a positive note, the memorial itself is beautiful. It stands at the exact location of the two towers, and has water falling from all four sides, into something like a huge square bowl. The water then goes into a smaller square and into the ground- viewers cannot see the entire depth of the water falling. But it is a touching memorial in many ways – aesthetically pleasing and it also bears the names of all those who died on the side walls. This is truly the most positive aspect of the whole experience.

Firefighters – the real heroes?

One fact that came home to me was that real heroes that day were the firefighters – the first responders, who came together to save thousands of lives. The exhibits are meant to give a real sense of the tragedy and they do. The reaction that many people who visited the museum was quite strong – I saw a few young ladies cry as they saw videos of the devastation that was wrought that fall morning. Others just stood there, in a daze, not believing what they were seeing. To me, it was as shocking a spectacle as it was normal – in a sense that the amount of imagery that I have consciously and unconsciously been exposed to has perhaps dulled my senses. I did not cry, but I did feel a strong sense of empathy with all those who died and a sense of respect for those who responded to the call for help– especially the first responders, including the ones from Ladder 3 Company, all of whom perished that day. “They died, saving the lives of thousands. You must remember that there were over 15,000 people in both towers that the fire fighters tried to save. We lost very few, compared to how many were there in the buildings,” pointed out the old lady who was volunteering as the point of contact at the burnt display of one of the fire trucks.

 

The ‘essentialising’ of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While there is large consensus that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks and extremists who used the rhetoric of Islamic jihad were behind the planning, there is definitely a problem in the way that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is portrayed in the Museum. Some commentators have taken issue with how the rise of Al-Qaeda is portrayed and the word ‘Islamic’ terrorism is a misnomer and that it is terrorism carried out by those who were claiming to follow Islam. Nothing Islamic about their actions. While this may be a linguistic nuance, and one that I would agree with, vast majority of academics and intelligentsia seem complacent and happy with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the word has gotten a lot of play. It seems almost banal to bring it up. Except that it is not banal and harmless.

Consider this: For all the effort at portraying and including all evidence and narratives, the Museum brochure does include a few languages – to ensure that people from around the world understand what they are seeing. I did see Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and German – but noticeably there was no Arabic script. Are the Museum staff telling something through this omission? I find it hard to believe that they left out Arabic – one of the world’s most widely spoken languages from the brochure, in a city that has a large Arab population and also hosts millions of Arab speakers on an annual basis. And I don’t think it is an unconscious omission. There is more to it than just a slip on someone’s part. I find that disturbing. The museum also fails on this account, of leaving out close to a billion people. And is there a valid reason for this?

 

 

Saraswati in America?

 

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“You know, each time I walk into the New York Public Library, I feel the presence of Saraswati, the goddess of learning.” That was Akumal Ramachander, a mentor and a dear friend, calling from Bangalore, to wish me for the New Year. We had spoken a few weeks ago when he was visiting. We spoke about several things, both mundane and profound, as our conversations go. But after I hung up the phone, I realized that he is actually right. Saraswati does live in America, and a brief visit to any university in the U.S. will demonstrate this. While the popular image of the U.S. is about Wall St., Fifth Avenue – all made popular thanks to Hollywood and the massive culture machine that is undeniably the most aggressive and sophisticated in the world, most people consider it only the land of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; but there is wisdom in realizing that Lakshmi, follows Saraswati not the other way around. Where there is no learning, there can be no real wealth.

             Between trying to convince me to become a vegetarian, a task he takes rather seriously, and enquiring about my health, we spoke about my upcoming exams, his health, philanthropy in India, recent elections in Delhi and upcoming national elections. Then, the conversation went back to Saraswati, or her manifestation in the American public sphere. The simple truth is that America is a super power because it is not only free and democratic, but also because there is free flow of knowledge, he added; and I couldn’t disagree. There is access to any form of knowledge, if people are willing to seek it out. Public libraries lend upwards of 25 books per patron, in fact, my school library lends 150 books at a time, to graduate students and I learnt that recently, when I reached the limit for number of books I could borrow. This is in some ways ‘exceptional’ if I may use the term, without its arrogant connotations. I doubt if any country in the world has such a well-established culture and infrastructure for knowledge dissemination.

             What about libraries in India? As a teenager wanting to read books, I remember struggling to find good books. My only choice, living in Bangalore, considered the most cosmopolitan city in India and the IT capital, was to go to the British Council Library ( one of the few decent ones in town) or to my college library. Suffice it to say that both did not measure up. The number and topics of books were limited, so was the availability of books. Nothing on the scale of Inter Library Loan (ILL) a national network of libraries, where one can order quite literally any book that one needs, free of charge. As one of my friends says in jest, if I had access to all the books I wanted in my teens, I would be orbiting Mars by now. Well, not really. My ambitions of being an Astronaut didn’t last more than a week. But on a serious note, the lack of access to books in India is shocking. Even in a big, developed city; with infrastructure, presence of big universities and billionaires who can make a difference, if they wish to.

            Contrary to the publicity that Indian philanthropists get for their generosity, I doubt if there is a genuine effort towards giving and philanthropy, towards the common good. There are a few exceptions, like the Infosys Foundation, Azeem Premji Foundation, Tata Foundation – but these are a few and do not represent the wealth that is present in India. There is not a single philanthropist who matches the vision or courage of Bill Gates of Warren Buffet, though they have wealth which is significant, perhaps not comparable. What is stopping them from committing half of their wealth towards education or healthcare for the poor? Why does an Ambani build an obscenely ostentatious house, estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, when half the city he lives in squalor? Is it a culture of greed that we are witnessing? Or one of callous disregard for learning, knowledge and human life itself? The less said about the government libraries, the better.

While there are incredible programs that are operating in India, to increase literacy, provide education scholarships and what not, the focus on higher education, providing resources to literate people to increase their knowledge and skills are few. However, here is an inspiring example of ingenuity, creativity and passion to make sure that kids have access to books. As Room to Read’s website points out : “Of all the world’s illiterate people, 35% live in India, and despite recent economic growth, India still lacks the basic resources to educate many of its people. Schooling is free and compulsory from ages 6-14, however inadequate facilities, lecture-based curriculum and gender bias cause 40% of students—mostly girls—to drop out before secondary school.” While that is a sobering statistic, and one that should be a call for everyone concerned to shake their inertia and do something about this, there seems to be little by way of effort from the Indian civil society itself to address this problem.

So, does philanthropy – both at the level of society and the corporate level have any role in addressing this? I believe so, but there needs to be more education and awareness for there to be action. As a cynical friend pointed out recently, that there is no civil society in India, just society. This is one extreme perspective. The fact is that with growing awareness of social issues, involvement of youth in creating public discourses impacting society at large, there is a sense that things can change. So, does it mean that there is an anti-intellectual climate in India? Not at all. There are great centers of learning, many learned people and a vast reservoir of talented and creative youth. The problem, as I see it is that much of this is untapped. The sheer lack of resources, lackadaisical attitude of government and the common man towards equipping the towns and cities with good libraries and venues of intellectual discourse is an unfortunate. We need more libraries, theatres, art galleries and more to create a really intellectually vibrant society. A society that goes beyond reading self-help books – India is apparently the leading market for self-help books in the world – to reading things that actually matter. Self-help and Astrology books don’t build a nation or its intellectuals. They can, on the contrary, do much damage.

So, how do we encourage Saraswati’s presence in our libraries and colleges? The answer may not be simple or easy, but I am sure that as inheritors of a great intellectual tradition, I am sure we can figure that out. Until then, we can admire and learn from some great institutions of learning and libraries such as the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress – institutions that are incomparable, and supported by the common man and the state.

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