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Holocaust memory and the New World Trade Center
The formation of 9/11 memory at the New World Trade Center is inherently dependent upon the memorial lessons of the Holocaust. Drawing on artistic and architectural practices deeply rooted in representing the unrepresentability of Jewish trauma (see Williams 2007; Young 2016), the “negative” memorial landscape emerging in Lower Manhattan constitutes a psycho-physical fissure in the collective, cultural psyche. Indicating the stubborn persistence of the events of 9/11 in present-day socio-political life through an aesthetic of absence, loss, and rupture, the architectural spaces of the New World Trade Center elevate the politics of traumatic memory in powerful ways.
As outlined in Chapter 1, there are three nationally dedicated September 11th memorial sites: the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, the Flight 93
National Memorial and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. While interviewing staff members from each site, it was brought to my attention that all three memorial institutions partnered with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in hopes of learning from them during their initial planning stages.2 The museal site located in Lower Manhattan also employs several high-ranking staff members— from administrators and educators, to curators, exhibition designers, researchers, and conservationists—who have previously worked at the USHMM or are scholars of Holocaust memory. Exhibition design firm Layman Designs—one of the firms tasked with creating the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s historical exhibition—has developed several permanent exhibitions for the USHMM, as well as the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Even the World Trade Center master planer, architect Daniel Libeskind, can claim credit for designing several memorials dedicated to the Holocaust, including the high-profile Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany.
The above examples indicate the aesthetic, logistical, and discursive framing of a national 9/11 memory as it converges with the historical memory of the Jewish Shoah by these memorial institutions. Likewise, the immediate circulation of Holocaust-inspired language in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, that is, “Never Again” and “We Will Never Forget,” clearly conflates the temporal and spatial boundaries separating past from present trauma. As rhetorical associations between Holocaust memory and the memorialization of 9/11 have continuously been forged in the post-9/11 decades, the focus of this chapter is not to detail each and every singular convergence of these memory discourses. Rather, the question that preoccupies this chapter is: why?
The perseverance of Holocaust analogies within contemporary socio-political life is made possible through the creation and circulation of meta-narratives and myths, where past events of atrocity are used to explain or make sense of the present (Novick 1999). What might initially appear as an unjustified comparison between 9/11 and Holocaust memory is by no means an attempt to equate the events themselves. These are historically distinct, culturally specific crimes against humanity. Nor is the comparison meant as a racist, anti-Semitic attempt to proliferate conspiracies of global “Jewish influence.” Rather, in placing the memories of these events side-by-side, I interrogate the spatial and temporal re-mapping of these two distinct cultural traumas as they affect, and are affected by, one another in the post-9/11 landscape. Our ability to trace the trajectories of cultural memories—and the spaces and temporalities they evoke and reproduce—is imperative to understanding which cultural memories become meaningful under postmodernity. Therefore, by proposing to study these traumatic memories as they map themselves over each other’s wounds—as the above framing begins to suggest—I ask, what kinds of emotional and political work does such a map do?
As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only 1 could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.
—President George W. Bush, May 15, 2008
During the 2008 US presidential campaigns, comments made by sitting President George W. Bush (above) equated then presidential-candidate Barack Obama’s advocacy for communications between the United States and Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the appeasement of Hitler at the onset of World War 11 (see Doyle 2008; Holland 2008; Stol-berg 2008; and Sidoti 2008, as samples of this news coverage).3 In the early months of the 2012 presidential campaign season, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich similarly criticized the incumbent President’s handling of Iran to that of appeasement and characterized the Middle Eastern country’s nuclear ambitions as a threat against Judaism on a global scale (Gingrich and Huntsman 2011).
For scholars of memory, the (geo)political importance of these exchanges should not be taken lightly. That President Bush made the above remarks in his address to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel’s statehood and Gingrich made his to would-be supporters in hopes of securing his presidential bid underscores the significance of cultural memory in shaping present-day global affairs and political attitudes. Central to this political discourse is the summoning of the Jewish Holocaust, which has played a definitive role in the fields of trauma and memory studies in the West for the past half century (see Felman and Laub 1992; Young 1988, 1993; Caruth 1996; Agamben 1999; Huyssen 1995, 2003; Edkins 2003; Till 2005; 2006, among others).
Holocaust remembrance spans the globe, from the Americas to Europe (western and eastern), the Middle East, South Africa, Japan, and Australia, with the United States being host to the majority of mnemonic sites (Israel Science and Technology Directory, n.d.). As a result of its global proliferation, the Holocaust is the most widely commemorated mass atrocity in the world and has resulted in the emergence of Holocaust memory as a “master narrative” in Western discourses of trauma and memory, with many of its museological sites functioning as exemplars of “best practice” for preserving and presenting difficult histories to the public (also see So-daro 2018). Although references to the Holocaust have been pervasive in US popular and political discourse since World War II (see Novick 1999), the former President’s and presidential hopeful’s comments highlight shifting discourses of cultural trauma, collective memory, and national security following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September
2001. Specifically, the political exchanges above mobilize a new wave of Holocaust memory in a post-9/11 world.4
According to sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1992), collective memories are products of present-day social structures and their corresponding concerns. What a society remembers, or chooses to forget, is dynamic. It is the result of power in motion. Collective memories are thus shaped by and reproduced through the societies and social relations from which they arise. As collective memory scholar Paul Connerton explains:
We experience our present world in a context which is causally connected with past events and objects, and hence with reference to events and objects which we are not experiencing when we are experiencing the present.... present factors tend to influence—some might say distort— our recollections of the past, but also because past factors tend to influence, or distort, our experiences of the present. (Connerton 1989, 2)
In other words, collective memories carry with them traces of past temporal and spatial relations that exist in present times, through such things as material artifacts or emotional impressions (see Gordon 1997, on sociological haunting).
According to Halbwachs’s and Connerton’s frameworks, collective memory is an inherently social—and thus by extension also political—animal. It is embedded in our institutions and social structures, and created and recreated through cultural performances, rituals, and the mundane acts of everyday life. Provocations of Holocaust memory by former President Bush and presidential hopeful Gingrich reflect the salience of this particular cultural memory in shaping contemporary understandings of political community post-9/11. Operating as a type of banal internationalism, Holocaust comparisons encourage the public to read a complex, post-9/11 map of international relations in simpler terms: there are “good” and “bad” people and places that are either “with us” or “against us.” Holocaust memory operates, in other words, as a powerful marker—and maker—of contemporary geopolitical imaginations.
Procured through popular motifs of good and evil peoples, places, and governments (e.g., democracy vs. dictator), the Holocaust memory canon provides contemporary societies with historical lessons not to be repeated. An evocative ‘warning sign’ for impending political danger, such “discourses of [traumatic] remembrance can be ideologically instrumentalized and exploited to ignore the complexities of a historical event, they can be dehistori-cized and mythologized to view the world in simple terms of good and evil, victims and perpetrators” (Arnold-de Simine 2013, 18). The aforementioned statements by leading US politicians, for instance, not only mobilized the affective power of Holocaust memory to reinscribe the inherently evil nature of Ahmadinejad by equating him with Hitler; they also reduced longer geopolitical histories between the United States, Iran, and Israel—previously allied states in the post-World War II period—to ahistorical narratives of Western victimization that culminate in a series of post-traumatic memory lessons: Dangerous Evil, Do Not Trust, Never Again! As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new online resource on the misuses of Holocaust memory accurately warns:
When individuals or governments misappropriate iconography of the Holocaust as a weapon ... they do so not merely with the intention of exploiting the pain of its memory, but also in the hope that such images will mobilize persons to their cause .... Those who co-opt recognizable icons of the Holocaust in the service of contemporary political causes simultaneously trivialize the memory of the murdered millions, and degrade the level of contemporary debate. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d., “Misuse”)
Here, rhetorical slippages between Holocaust and 9/11 memory help depict the Iranian political leader as a geopolitical threat to the United States and its allies in the global war on terror, an image fully supported in the post-9/11 imaginary (Iran is explicitly listed in Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, and, more recently, officials within the Trump administration have advanced allegations of terrorism-related connections between the Iranian government and al-Qaeda). Iran’s political fate in the larger war on terror context is thus tethered to popular memories of the Holocaust and 9/11 that, when situated alongside memories of the Iranian Hostage Crisis following the Persian country’s turn toward political Islam in 1979—not to mention the recent diplomatic breakdown over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the “Iran Nuclear Deal,” as it is more commonly known— generate ample public support for pre-emptive warfare in the interest of inter/national security. This narrative is further entrenched by a series of ongoing proxy conflicts between Iran and Israel (2006-present) over a Cold War-inspired game of nuclear deterrence and regional influence.
The aforementioned discursive frames underscore the power of traumatic memory to function as a form of popular geopolitics, influencing public policy and opinion on matters of war and peace, terrorism and counterterrorism, and inter/national security following the September 11 attacks. As Chapters 1 and 2 demonstrate, the politics of cultural memory, placemaking, and identity-formation are dynamically mediated and hashed out through our affectual encounters at places of traumatic memory. Although much has been written about the “politics of memory” in situ by geography as a discipline, less has been written about the “memory of politics” ex situ, whereby memory’s meaning is inherently international, and narratives of place and place-making are mediated by global audiences and their counterpublics (see Edkins 2003). Moving toward understandings of memory as central to geopolitical—and other cross-border—understandings of identity, place, and trauma, this next section engages the affectual politics of
9/11 memory at the intersection of the national and the transnational. To this end, I argue that the formation of 9/11 memory at nationally dedicated memorial landscapes is inherently dependent upon Holocaust-derived lessons that, when measured alongside international terror threats, operate as forms of soft power in the global arena vis-à-vis affective heritage.
Building on subfields of political geography and international relations, this next section utilizes analytical frameworks in popular geopolitics, and popular culture and world politics (PCWP), to trace the rhetorical mobilization of Holocaust memory in post-9/11 domestic politics, international relations, and cultures of commemoration at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. In this pop cultural approach, cultural artifacts are mobilized “as simple allegorical resources to convey (or teach) what are often assumed to be the more complex realities of international relations” (Grayson 2018,49). The Osama bin Laden compound brick on display in the 9/11 Memorial Museum (pictured in Chapter 2), for example, serves as a tidy bookend to the museum’s September 11 story. It responds intertextually to a photographic image at the tail end of the museum’s historical exhibition that displayed a New York lawn sign asking, as it did every day following the September 11 attacks: “Where is Osama bin Laden?” (Figure 3.4).5 Sitting just above the yard sign’s pointed question was a numerical counter that tracked each passing day the al-Qaeda leader roamed free. This rhetorical dialogue between the Brooklyn lawn sign, the U.S. government, and the museum’s compound brick, is a powerful example of popular geopolitics, to which the Abbottabad compound brick responds with sheer finality: “look here for yourself; he is dead.” This evocative potential of the bin Laden compound masonry artifact is rescaled here to successfully mark the convergence of the global and the intimate (see Mountz and Hyndman 2006). The formation of 9/11 memory inside the museum’s historical exhibition is thus mediated alongside external happenings, such as ongoing war efforts and the continued threat of international terrorism to both American and international security. Here, exhibition objects are selected to connect the everyday politics of memory and place-making to the memory of geopolitics. Life under globalization thus becomes a zero-sum game of memory politics, positioning museum visitors to emerge triumphantly at the defeat of a mutual foe and recasting the memorial museum as “a site of micro-politics where political subjectivities, geopolitical and security imaginations, identities, and imagined communities are (re)produced at the level of the everyday” (Caso and Hamilton 2015, 2). Inside the museum, then, visitors are effectively conscripted into the national security state and its counterterrorism imaginary.
Addressing popular usages of Holocaust inspired memory-scripts since 9/11, the goals of the subsequent sections are twofold. First, by drawing on key ideas within the geographies of memory literature, as well as recent works in transnational memory studies, I trace the rhetorical circulation of Holocaust memory as it converges with the ascendancy of 9/11 memory in the
Figure 3.4 Brooklyn Lawn Sign. National September 11 Memorial Museum. Image taken by the author (taken April 2016).
post-9/11 decades. As a yardstick of Western liberal values and moral judgments, Holocaust-inspired analogies, woven into war on terror discourses, affirm popular support for US and allied responses to global terrorism threats (equating a contemporary Muslim leader to Hitler, for example). In the post-9/11 era, Holocaust metaphors are thus mobilized to attain the morally derived public consent necessary to sustain—or withdraw— executive privilege and sovereign power over decisions of war and peace. Second, the subsequent sections analyze the indoctrination of Holocaust memory-scripts at the 9/11 Memorial Museum with the goal of establishing a “moral education” for its visitors (Sodaro 2018, 10). To this end, I illustrate how Holocaust memory serves as both a commemorative framework and narrative point of reference for the formation of 9/11 memory at the muse-ological site.
In my interviews with National September 11 Memorial & Museum staff members, connections between Holocaust memory and the memorializa-tion of the September 11 attacks arose in nearly every instance.6 One staff member working at the 9/11 Memorial Museum described this connection in the following way:
1 think they’re very different events [the Holocaust and 9/11], and I would hesitate to analogize between them as historic events. But I think that they—both of the events were not tsunamis, they were not natural disasters, they were humanly perpetrated mass murders, although in different historical contexts and certainly at a different scale in terms of the Holocaust. But the fact is: human beings are capable of doing this. And so both [memorial institutions] ask a fundamental question, which is: Why? (Personal Communication, December 2011)
Another 9/11 Memorial & Museum staffer working at the 9/11 Memorial brought up similar ideas:
I almost feel like they [the Holocaust and 9/11] are tied by tragedy.... It is because of the senselessness of the deaths of these innocent victims. And there is a need to understand how one goes forward from such a tragedy, how does one—as a city, as a community—not only survive, but move forward in a positive way and yet not forget what took place? (Personal Communication, January 2011)
Therefore, as references to past cultural trauma are reproduced and mapped onto present-day memorial contexts, evocations of Nazi-like levels of violence and Jewish-like suffering suggest that particular scripts of Holocaust memory are mobilized throughout 9/11 commemoration. I now turn to the affective politics of Holocaust memory as it moves ex situ—traveling across place, space, and time, both then and now.