What Closing the 9/11 Museum Means
The closure of the museum will threaten the need to remember and honor that day.
To the Greatest Generation, everyone remembers where they were when news of Pearl Harbor broke. To the Boomers, everyone knows where they were when news of President John F Kennedy being shot was announced. But to my generation, the Millennials, we all know where we were when news of 9/11 happened. To younger Millennials it was watching a TV as a relatively small child, but to older Millennials like myself we gasped with full adult horror what we were watching. People watch the news every day but maybe once in their life do they see and event which they know is history changing. 9/11 was mine.
The attacks of 9/11 were shattering but the response of the American people was stirring. Within hours Americans of all backgrounds were lining up to donate blood. Even the poorest Americans dipped into their wallets to donate to the families of first responders who had died. American flags appeared everywhere. The cowardice of the hijackers was soon washed away with moving stories of courage, sacrifice and public service from Americans. At 35,000 feet the first citizen soldiers of the 21st century stormed the hijacked cockpits of Flight 93 with a shout of “Let’s Roll” and saved another city from a suicide strike, but lost their own lives in the process. In New York City, grandmothers made cakes and lemonade for people searching for survivors in the rubble of Ground Zero. It was a powerful moment of unity in what would transpire to be two decades of increasing polarization.
I am not American. I am British. But even I could not help but be deeply and intensely moved by the patriotism, courage and defiance of the American people. This planted a seed of deep love and admiration for America and its people that never went away and explains in part why I settled here later in my life. At the time 9/11 happened I was in my first week of university. The campus was electrified between the forces that joined in with the ghoulish “They had it coming” crowd on the left, and those like myself who correctly saw America as the last great hope of humanity that all freedom loving people should support.
In 2010 I made my first visit to America. By now I was an international relations expert at the European Parliament, and the desire to see America was strong. When I visited New York City it was everything I hoped it would be. On one day I made a solemn pilgrimage to visit Ground Zero, which at the time was still essentially a construction site. The options for touring the site at the time were twofold; either visit the museum, or combine your museum visit with a tour alongside a survivor of the day. It was an easy choice. In fact that day there were two survivors. One man, who had been a New York Port Authority officer on duty, and a woman who had worked on the 8th Floor of the WTC. Their stories still live with me to this day.
The Port Authority officer had worked the night shift between 7pm and 7am. At 7 am on 9/11/01, he went home. He had missed the attacks by barely one hour, but he rushed back to the scene to assist as best he could. He talked of how he often worked the night shift, and in the middle of the night would sit in the plaza between the twin towers to eat lunch. Sometimes a financial services guy in a pin striped suit would descend from watching the markets in Asia and sit beside him. Time differences across the world markets meant the financial services guy worked through the night. Here were two New Yorkers, one a rough around the edges cop with a thick New York accent, the other a wealthy financial wizard. But they were both relaxing and chatting over a sandwich in the still of the night, in the shadow of the WTC. Many of the men he shared a sandwich and a chat with would die in those towers.
The second survivor was a woman who worked on the 8th Floor. She said she always felt jealous of her friend who worked on almost the very top floor. Sometimes she would visit his office and marvel at the view of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and New York’s bridges. She would find that being much lower in the towers would save her life. On the morning of the attacks, she heard a loud thud and a jolt. Loud sounds are not necessarily unusual in big cities, but what happened next was. She saw thousands of sheets of paper floating down outside the windows, seeming to come from the other tower, like an eerie confetti. Her boss, a survivor of the 1993 attacks on the WTC looked up near his window and gave the order to evacuate.
She then zig-zagged down the stairs with thousands of other WTC workers, although at this time the overriding emotion was confusion and concern. In 2001 cell phones and the internet were not quite as omnipresent as today, so people did not necessarily realize what was happening. But as she made it to the ground floor plaza and began walking across, she heard a deafening roar. She looked up to see a VERY low flying plane hurtling towards the towers. “Oh good a rescue plane!” she said she thought, only to immediately realize this was no rescue mission. The plane slammed into the tower, and as she was stood at the base, she could even see the tower slightly swaying from the force of impact. She then ran away as fast as she could, learning later in the day her friend on the higher floors had died.
This personal history or “Person to Person” history as the museum dubbed it, has lived with me ever since. I even found the visitor badge I wore on the tour while moving apartments. It brought that day into even sharper focus. Furthermore this was not and is not ancient history. This was not grainy black and white footage, or a second hand story told by an elderly relative about one of their elderly relatives. This was real. This was person to person. The closure of the 9/11 museum that did so much to bring that day to life for me and millions of others is now gone, and with it, is the person to person history.
The closure of the museum is a massive loss. When I visited New York again in 2018 I visited a 95 year old relative who had fought at Iwo Jima and marveled at his stories. It was captivating to listen to a man who was actually there telling me about his exploits, and how his mother was born in 1891. Here I was discussing World War II with an actual veteran who had survived banzai charges and whose mother had been born in the same century as the wars of Napoleon. Never, ever discount how powerful and alive history is in person. The closure of the museum denies that to others.
On that same visit to New York, a very bad storm, complete with thick fog and clouds had almost completely obscured the rebuilt WTC from view, making it almost look like it was not there. The closure of the museum threatens to make it seem that the WTC was never there and 9/11 never mattered. We Millennials and older generations can at least remember it. But for the Zoomers, not even born as the towers fell, the loss of the museum closes a very moving and powerful opportunity for them to experience person-to-person history.
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