At 8:45am on Sept. 11, 2001, I was walking into the Magnificat office, 20 miles north of the World Trade Center. My assistant told me that a plane had just flown into one of the Twin Towers and that there was general panic. I sent her home, and I went home, too. There, on television, I saw a jetliner fly into the South Tower.
In the days and weeks that followed, a number of my priest friends served as chaplains at Ground Zero. Hundreds of the victims — especially police officers and firefighters — were Catholic.
After 9/11, it was not unusual to pass a fire engine on the highway, a flag-draped coffin on its roof, headed to Gate of Heaven Cemetery. The sight triggered tears each time.
With this vivid memory, I visited the National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center in New York City about a month after its opening on May 21.
The “memorial museum” is a modern phenomenon. Other famous examples include the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which opened in 1947. The most moving museum I have experienced is the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Poland, which opened in 2004.
Like those, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is situated at the scene of the atrocity it seeks to commemorate, and it endeavors to educate those who visit by providing a moral framework as well as a contextual explanation of the events it memorializes.
The mission statement of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington captures well the purpose of all such museums: “The museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events … as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”
The September 11 Memorial Museum defines its mission in this way: It “bears solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Feb. 26, 1993. The museum honors the nearly 3,000 victims of these attacks and all those who risked their lives to save others. It further recognizes the thousands who survived and all who demonstrated extraordinary compassion in the aftermath. Demonstrating the consequences of terrorism on individual lives and its impact on communities at the local, national and international levels, the museum attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.”
One begins a visit to the museum by going down a steep escalator to “The Ramp,” a sloped passage leading to the original foundation level of the Twin Towers and the museum’s different exhibitions. In fact, much of the visit consists of one constant, progressive descent — eerily reminiscent of what those thousands of trapped people were doing on 9/11 to escape the horrific plummet of the two buildings themselves.
What stops visitors in their tracks early in the exhibit is the “Survivors’ Staircase.” This flight of 38 granite-clad stairs from Vesey Street was the last visible remaining original structure above ground level at the World Trade Center site. First responders directed hundreds of evacuees with the (now enshrined) words, “Go down this set of stairs and then just run — run as fast as you can.”
What first greets patrons, however, are the projected faces and recorded voices of those who were there that day. Many visitors, though, when I was there, whisked right past this feature without pausing. And yet the photographed expressions of those on the sidewalk looking up at the burning skyscrapers are poignant beyond description.
As the priest who accompanied me remarked: “The whole thing — it’s all right there in the reaction of those witnesses.”
Which made me wonder: What were my co-patrons rushing on to see? The general ambience of the museum, sadly, was noisy and even a little frantic. Granted, some artifacts border on the sensational. A section of steel façade from one airplane’s point of impact is so twisted and contorted as to suggest a modern art sculpture. The melted aluminum ladders of a ravaged fire truck resemble a great, grotesque shock of windswept hair. A massive steel girder lies bent back on itself like a piece of ribbon candy — the result of volcanic heat and pressure when the towers collapsed.
But the relevance of other items remains difficult to assess. What is the contribution of an intact bicycle rack with its bicycles or a complete clothing store display window containing sweaters on hangers and racks, price tags and sales signs and all, covered in dust and rubble? Or that of the one room filled with Times Square souvenir shop tchotchkes: coffee mugs, key chains, postcards, coasters, mini Statues of Liberty and the like?
It is the “In Memoriam Memorial Exhibition” where the museum best accomplishes its purpose. The four walls of the immense space are covered, floor to ceiling, with faces: headshot photographs of the 2,983 people killed in the terrorist attacks. Electronic interactive tables enable the visitor to search and read about a victim and to view accompanying photos.
Within that space lies a darkened, chapel-like room, with benches lining the walls. Here, a recorded voice solemnly speaks the name of each victim, one after the other. A photo of the person’s face is projected on the walls, along with a short personal profile. A recorded testimonial by a family member or loved one follows. It is all deeply moving. This “inner sanctum” was really the only place in the museum where people were silent and still.
The culminating experience is the “September 11, 2001, Historical Exhibition.” Here, one can effectively relive that fateful Tuesday. In one small room, visitors can hear recordings of a number of transmissions made by first responders. The entrance to another room posts this advisory: “This area of the exhibition includes content that may be particularly disturbing.” It is; it shows videos of people falling from the towers.
During the whole of the three hours that I walked through the museum, I wondered where the famous, 17-foot 9/11 steel cross was. Certainly, there is no greater icon of Ground Zero. And, sure enough, the curators of the museum have situated it so that it is practically the last thing that the patrons see — the culminating, climactic exhibit. Unfortunately, it is surrounded by many distracting items. It would be better for the cross to be set off by itself, perhaps with benches placed around it.
As the construction worker who found the cross, Frank Silecchia, observed in a talk he gave shortly after 9/11: “This cross has brought comfort to hundreds of people. … I know that this symbol is there to relieve or comfort. … My object is give to this cross what it deserves, because it is the symbol of our strength, our freedom.”
Sometimes it is the little things that are most powerful. Near the cross is displayed a Bible found at Ground Zero that on 9/11 got fused with metal. It is permanently open to Matthew 5:39: “But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil.’ But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
The presence of these two precious relics — this cross and this Bible — best enable the September 11 Museum to fulfill its own stated mission: to “respect this place made sacred through tragic loss” and to “recognize the endurance of those who survived, the courage of those who risked their lives to save others, and the compassion of all who supported us in our darkest hours.”
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron is
the editor in chief of Magnificat.