In search of closure on US 'hallowed ground'

A visit to the site of the 9/11 attack in New York elicits mixed emotions from tourists and residents alike.


    NEW YORK - Talking to people in New York City about the September 11, 2001, attacks is a somewhat disorienting experience.

    This is not particularly because of what they say, but rather how the city seems to have dealt with the attacks: there is a simultaneous sense of distance and closeness to the events of 10 years ago.

    On the one hand, this city, so famed for moving at the speed of sound, continues to do so; an unstoppable, complex machine of more than eight million people. And then again on the other, the closer you get to the site of the World Trade Centre, the more you begin to notice people looking up from the pavement, at an empty space in the skyline.

    "It's important to come here to remember," says Sharon Duncan, a 56-year-old business manager who is visiting the city from Illinois. "To never forget that day."

    Duncan was standing by a plaque adjacent to the site, a bronze relief that echoes her words and depicts the towers as they stood, smoke billowing from the middle storeys, with firemen, police officers and rescue workers rushing in from all sides.

    The plaque itself stands on the outside of the building of the Tribute WTC Visitor's Centre, a museum and gallery set up by the September 11 Families' Association in order to provide a means for people "to connect with people from the September 11 community", according to the organisation's literature.

    The exhibits include short videos on the community of those who worked at or lived near the WTC, significant objects recovered from the mangled wreckage of the buildings, and first-hand accounts from people who were in the buildings, engaged in the rescue effort or were related to one of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed on that day.

    Also exhibited are accounts from people who lived in the area and were connected to the WTC in various ways. These include everything from the words of Lois Eida, a Battery Park city resident, to his children ("I always told my kids: focus in on the twin towers if you can't find your way home. That way you'll never be lost.") to those of Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist made famous for this walk across the gap between the towers.

    "I remember walking across the towers – the soup of sounds, the boat horns, the traffic, the wind … gliding my foot and penetrating the cloud layer," Petit wrote. "I was only scared twice: when my foot left the building and when the sea gull flew around me … staring as if I had entered his space."

    'It could happen again'

    The videos and accounts leave one with a sense of a building that was more than steel and glass: of a structure that was symbolic of "economic vitality", of "power" and of being "at the centre of things". The very same things, of course, that made it such a target: first in 1993, and finally in 2001.

    As you enter the final room on the ground floor, a collage of hundreds of photographs of victims of the attack 10 years ago, the emotion amongst those present is palpable: a thick, almost overwhelming sense of loss as you realise that each of the faces smiling at you from the four walls around you belongs to someone who was killed arbitrarily.
    "It could have happened to any of us. It could happen again," Duncan told Al Jazeera.

    The final section of the centre is perhaps the most fascinating: a display of postcards from the Person-to-Person History project. The centre invites visitors to write down their thoughts about the attacks – whether they are about the attacks' implications for global geopolitics, or simply about where they were and how they felt at the time – so that they may be shared with a wider audience.

    The postcards form a fascinating collage of experiences, from the then-eight-year-old child who vowed on that day to join the US armed forces (and who, at the time of writing the postcard, had just enrolled as the US military academy at West Point), to the man from Mumbai whose wife had had a miscarriage earlier on September 11, 2001 ("At that moment our personal grief took a back seat as we shared the Sept 11 terror victims' griefs").

    'Opportunity for closure'

    Al Jazeera asked visitors at the centre whether they felt their visit was due more to historical curiosity, or an emotional connection to the attacks. Most said that it was a mixture of both, but ultimately that it was the emotion, a deep sadness, they said, that drove them to make the visit.

    Though having said that, with the construction of the new 1 World Trade Centre (more commonly referred to as "Freedom" or "Liberty" Tower), there is also a sense of rebuilding amongst those visiting the site.

    "I feel it's impressive how [the US] recovered from the devastation – I came here three years ago, and this building was just six or seven storeys high. I didn't expect this," said Oliver Pinter, who is visiting from St Louis, Missouri.

    "When [1 WTC] is ready, then you have an opportunity for closure – for growing stronger," said Luis Mayana, another visitor. "It will show that Americans know how to pick themselves up."

    That question of closure remains an open one: several visitors told Al Jazeera that the wound that was opened on September 11, 2001, has yet to heal.

    "Look at the ground," said A Kube, visiting from British Columbia, Canada, pointing to the gaping hole where the foundations for new buildings planned for the WTC site were being laid. "It’s still open."

    As for New Yorkers? Well, their opinions are as diverse as their city. One man, who had seen the towers fall 10 years ago, told Al Jazeera that 1 WTC would provide a sense of an empty space in the skyline, one which you were acutely aware of when gazing towards southern Manhattan, being filled. Another, who works a few blocks from the site itself, termed the Tribute centre a "tourist trap".

    "Most New Yorkers, they understand that this is a part of their history," said Eric Engleson. "People from other parts of the country just don't have that sense of closure. It's become a tourist attraction."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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