Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Trauma’s others and the limits of 9/11 memory

In the early stages of the 9/11 Memorial design competition, anxiety over Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence persisted as first-round deliberations lamented the design’s lack of aesthetic redemption (see Lacayo 2004; Herschthal 2011).5 Both family members and memorial jurors expressed concern over the design’s propensity for necropolis, fearing its negative memorial tradition would aesthetically overwhelm the site with macabre impressions of loss and destruction (see Figure 4.4).

As a result of jurors’ concerns, a 400-oak tree “memorial grove” was imposed ex post facto onto Arad’s original design, solidifying its selection as the winning memorial entry:

While the [memorial] footprints remain empty, the surrounding plaza’s design has evolved to include beautiful groves of trees, traditional affirmations of life and rebirth. These trees, like memory itself, demand the care and nurturing of those who visit and tend them. They remember life with living forms, and serve as living representations of the destruction and renewal of life in their own annual cycles. The result is a memorial that expresses both the incalculable loss of life and its consoling regeneration. (Lower Manhattan Development Corporation 2004b)

Interest in “greening” Arad’s 9/11 memorial design emphasizes varying degrees of both ecological and psychological resilience (see Sather-Wagstaff 2015). The addition of commemorative trees by landscape architect Peter

Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence, initial sketch concept. Image courtesy of Handel Architects © 2004

Figure 4.4 Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence, initial sketch concept. Image courtesy of Handel Architects © 2004.

Walker reinvigorated the memorial plaza with new life. Like humans, trees undergo an organic lifecycle; it is their ability to generate new life over time that gives memorial trees their symbolic power to evoke hope for the future. Used to commemorate both the passing and onset of life, memorial trees are an important cultural symbol of renewal at Ground Zero: “‘Trees are pretty resilient things,’ said [New York City] Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe. ‘It’s in their DNA to come back from wounds’” (Benepe quoted in Reynolds 2011).

The Ground Zero “Survivor Tree” (see Figure 4.5), prominently featured amidst the memorial’s 400 white oaks, has earned particular symbolic capital on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza for its own Darwinian resilience:

As the dust began to settle on lower Manhattan, and rescue and recovery workers made their way through the rubble, they came upon

The Survivor Tree repatriated to the site. NS11M&M. Image courtesy of Downtown Express / The Villager ©2011

Figure 4.5 The Survivor Tree repatriated to the site. NS11M&M. Image courtesy of Downtown Express / The Villager ©2011.

a tree. Although this tree had snapped roots and burned branches, it was alive—it had survived. It soon became a symbol of our nation’s enduring optimism and unbreakable spirit after the September 11 attacks. (National September 11 Memorial & Museum 2018)

Rescued from World Trade Center rubble and nursed back to health, this “mortally wounded” Callery Pear is perhaps the most famous survivor tree (Elliott 2014).

Survivor trees are “trees that have endured tragedies and yet persisted” (US Forest Service, n.d.). As primary witnesses to traumatic events, these nonhuman elements have been preserved in, and even added to, memorial landscapes for their representational capacities to say what cannot be said of the unimaginable. According to Joe Daniels, former President and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (2006-2017), ‘“This tree

The Survivor Tree. NS11M&M. Image taken by the author

Figure 4.6 The Survivor Tree. NS11M&M. Image taken by the author.

is a key element of the memorial plaza’s landscape’ ... emblematic of [the] destruction and ‘hellish conditions’ on the World Trade Center site, [which] now symbolizes ‘beauty and peace’” (Daniels quoted in Reynolds 2011).

The Survivor Tree at Ground Zero, like the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s slurry wall, serves as a nonhuman witness to the human scale and devastation of the attacks and as a symbol of the country’s unbreakable spirit. Transplanted to a nearby nursery in the attack’s aftermath, the Survivor Tree was brought back to health and carefully tended for nearly a decade: “[recon]figured as a [superior] ‘natural’ body to be secured, purified, and strengthened in the face of [further] threat” (Biermann 2016,211; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019). With the wounds of 9/11 etched onto its callused bark, the tree was returned to the World Trade Center in 2010 in an act of “repatriation” (Vega 2015). According to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, “the tree stands as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth,” a palimpsest of pre- and post-September 11th worlds (National September 11 Memorial & Museum 2018).

As an active traumascape, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum represents “ruins as wounds on the body politic” that are “carefully maintained in a freshly ruined state” (Moshenska 2015, 88; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019). In the context of reimagining Arad’s original design, the addition of memorial trees to the World Trade plaza symbolizes America’s resurrection. It erases the perpetrators’ infliction from the site and signals to the world the renewal of American values within the landscape. Aestheticizing ecological

9/11 memory and the “trauma economy" 135 regeneration alongside national trauma, the 9/11 Memorial landscape produces cultural narratives of place and memory that reinforce post-9/11 narratives of cultural resilience and national security. Arad’s memorial pools, with their downward gravitational pull, for instance, both allude to and evade motifs of US vulnerability. With their cascading waterfalls descending further downward toward bottomless inner voids, the memorial pools endlessly perform the attack’s destruction in a post-traumatic loop of human and architectural loss. “Marked by the sign of constant death” that is evoked throughout the site’s dualistic absent-presence of the Twin Towers— an enduring loss that is representationally elusive yet remains viscerally palpable to visitors—the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is thus part of broader understandings of cultural perseverance and insecurity in the age of global terrorism (Mbembe 2003, 11).

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is both a product and producer of affective heritage. Dynamically tasked to heal and remember these cultural wounds, the mnemonic narratives of ruin and rebirth aesthetically encoded at the New World Trade Center foreclose the possibility of confronting more complex narratives and material experiences of loss and insecurity engendered at the site. It is widely acknowledged, for instance, that at least 15 undocumented Mexican workers died in the attacks on the World Trade Center (see Delano and Nienass 2014). Although the US government officially recognizes five of these victims, the names of the other ten victims remain absent from the 9/11 Memorial. There are presently no plans to amend the memorial to include the ambiguous presence of undocumented or other unknown victims of the attacks (Delano and Nienass 2014). At stake here is not only who counts as a victim, but also which narratives of precarity are made to count as part of this larger living memorial and its related national-natural body politic.

In May 2017, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum revealed design plans for a new memorial component on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza: a dedicated memorial to first responders suffering from 9/11-related toxic exposure (see Pereira 2017; Hajela 2018). The recently dedicated memorial opened in May 2019, on the 17th Anniversary of the official end of the Ground Zero recovery efforts. The new memorial component is a permanent fixture on the World Trade plaza, located on the southwestern quadrant, a grassy clearing near the Survivor Tree known as the “Memorial Glade” (see Figure 4.7).

The design for the Memorial Glade “includes a pathway flanked by six large stone monoliths, ranging from 13 to 18 tons, that are inlaid with World Trade Center steel accompanied by an inscription at either end” (National September 11 Memorial & Museum 2019; also see Solnik 2018).6 Its usage of natural elements, such as stone and open greenspace, is interlaid with steel remains from the destructed site to evoke 9/11-ruin alongside symbolic regeneration (see Figure 4.8). The tranquil area’s inscription, however, makes the Memorial Glade’s function on the larger 9/11 Memorial & Museum landscape explicit in that it offers visitors an acknowledgment of broader categories of victimization, as well as a geographically expanded area of impact.

Memorial Glad. NS11M&M. Image taken by the author

Figure 4.7 Memorial Glad. NS11M&M. Image taken by the author.

Memorial Glad, close up. NS11M&M. Image taken by the author

Figure 4.8 Memorial Glad, close up. NS11M&M. Image taken by the author.

The incorporation of this new memorial element is evidence that 9/11 memory is both dynamic and strategic. The inclusion of this latest memorial development is the direct result of decades-long advocacy, painstakingly led by those most affected, including former 9/11 Memorial Director of Design and Construction, Ron Vega, whose own health suffers from his time spent on “the pile” during recovery efforts. Vehemently championed by New York comedian and 9/11 Memorial board member Jon Stewart, momentum for the new memorial culminated in 2010 with the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The Zadroga Act is a congressional bill extending the federal Victim Compensation Fund to those suffering 9/11-related illnesses, and is named after Zadroga as his is the first death attributed to 9/11-related toxic exposure. Funds for the Zadroga Act were running critically low in the years following the bill’s passage, with limited political will to secure access to additional funding for future healthcare related payouts. As a result of the aforementioned activism, however, the World Trade Center Health Program—established by the Zadroga Act— was extended in 2016 and then reauthorized in 2019, extending this healthcare coverage until 2092 (Center for Disease Control, n.d.). The inclusion of the Memorial Glade at the heritage site mirrors growing public support for this new category of 9/11 victims. And although its inclusion rectifies the historic wrong of the state’s previous denial of rescue and recovery workers’ collective suffering, its expanded category of victimization is limited by state-centric narratives of heroism and sacrifice.

In preparation of the Memorial Glade’s inclusion on the site, for example, Alice Greenwald, current National September 11 Memorial & Museum President and CEO, characterized the rescue and recovery efforts in the following manner:

After the towers fell, and before the dust cloud settled, these remarkably brave men and women risked their lives, and health, as they joined the response and helped start the process of recovery. We should always remember what they endured in the aftermath of the attacks as they paved the way for this city and our country to rebuild. (Email Correspondence, May 24, 2018)

Here, the actions exuded by first responders and ordinary citizens are rhetorically mobilized by the mnemonic institution through narratives of patriotism and sacrifice. Such implicit wartime logics politicize the aforementioned human actions in the service of the state, reducing their sacrifices and survivals to statecraft. President George W. Bush evoked similar images amidst the post-9/11 anthrax scares during a speech in Atlanta, Georgia:

We have gained new heroes, those who ran into burning buildings to save others .... Those who battle their own fears to keep children calm and safe .... Those who voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way to defend our freedom .... And tonight we join in thanking a whole new group of public servants [postal workers] who never enlisted to fight a war, but find themselves on the front lines of a battle nonetheless .... We will never forget all we have lost and all we are fighting for. (Bush 2001b)

In this latter example, presidential comments position the actions of ordinary civilians alongside those of first responders and service members. In other words, they are all serving on the frontlines of this unprecedented war. Reflecting the broader militarization of daily life post-9/11, the behaviors of everyday workers are deployed by the President to bolster sovereign power, but at the cost of accounting for more complex narratives of governmental failure following the tragedy.

The collapse of the World Trade Center resulted in a wide range of health issues for many local residents. The tragedy of 9/11 thus became inextricably entangled with everyday toxins embedded in the borough of Manhattan:

The computers, insulation, and light bulbs encountered on a daily basis became flows of lead, asbestos, and mercury; the air itself contaminated. Familiar, everyday objects were suddenly an incomprehensible dust cloud of toxicity and death, creeping outwards into streets, homes, and lungs. (Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019, 512)

The World Trade Center “dust cloud”, which was visible from the five boroughs, New Jersey, and Long Island, powerfully represented the uncontained nature of the attacks. According to one governmental report, “400,000 people were exposed to toxins as a result of 9/11; about 90,000 are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program” (Solnik 2018). Despite the attacks’ widespread environmental impact, however, public perception of the destruction was that it was contained. As the above figures suggest, the burden of toxic exposure was mostly privatized by the surrounding communities themselves, due, in large part, to governmental efforts that portrayed the ensuing damage as “under control.”

Following the attacks, both federal and municipal agencies exerted concerted efforts to suppress public knowledge about the variety of health threats, known and unknown. The White House Council on Environmental Quality pressured the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into releasing reassuring statements regarding the safety of the air, despite insufficient data. Meanwhile, businesses and building owners encouraged city officials to enable re-occupancy, despite the Department of Environmental Protection’s recommendations (Beusse et al. 2003; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019). Both instances of public deceit reveal the broader interests of the state and market to define the destruction as “bounded”—contained to the space and time of the attacks. The actual health consequences, however, were much more uncertain—a slowly metastasizing onslaught of harms that continued to unfold. Here, post-9/11 disaster management “manifested] as ‘slow

9/11 memory and the “trauma economy’’ 139 trauma’”, with additional harms cropping up in disparate times and spaces in the form of scarred lungs, increased cancer rates, autoimmune diseases, and “innumerable cascading mental health impacts—such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, etc.” (Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019, 513; also see Welch et al. 2015; Zvolensky et al. 2015; Yip et al. 2016). This toxic seep constituted a type of “slow violence” that impacts lives in ways still unincorporated by the 9/11 Memorial landscape (Nixon 2011; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019). The addition of the Memorial Glade thus continues to obscure the attacks’ lasting environmental impact, especially on those not directly involved in the site’s recovery efforts.

As a consequence of prioritizing the terrorist attack’s primary and most visible victims, 9/11 victims and their families found themselves in the midst of what Jack Rosenthal described as ‘“vengeful philanthropy,’ a politics of compensation—and identification—that privileges certain losses and kinds of victimization for political ends” (Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019, 513; also see Feinberg 2005; Davies 2018). 9/11 victims were defined as those immediately killed or injured in the attacks, representing a new political category and emergent national symbol against a dangerous foreign adversary. Here, limiting victimization to acute violence assists the state in maintaining the discursive boundary between “their” violence and “ours,” particularly in lieu of governmental failures to ensure public safety against the secondary threat of toxic exposure. Despite immediate efforts to rhetorically collectivize 9/11 victims—a necessity for both assigning blame and generating large-scale support for a military response—governmental reluctance to recognize secondary victims of the September 11 attacks denied material compensations to those whose health conditions metastasized long after the buildings fell. It was only after years of hard-fought activism that cleanup workers and others received any compensation. And until recently, this history of victimization was altogether omitted from the 9/11 Memorial landscape, which begs the question: why is it being included now?

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s inclusion of this new category of victims— victims of 9/11 toxic exposure—produces its own exclusions and silences, both at home and abroad. Amidst the political visibility of the Zadroga Act, a lesser-known legal battle ensued. The United States military’s waste management practice of open-air burning exposed hundreds of thousands of US military personnel and civilian contractors to toxic fumes in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009, before the pits were formally banned in 2010 (see Riess 2012; Kime 2015). Until then, “Everything—all the trash of the war—was thrown in a burn pit, soaked with jet fuel, and torched” (Percy 2016). Litigations against the corporate entities responsible for the so-called “burn pits,” Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown, & Root, LLC., an offshoot of the Halliburton Corporation, have failed at every level of judicial oversight, culminating in the US Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the plaintiffs’ case in 2018. In the lower court’s ruling, the judiciary maintains its lack of judicial oversight into such “political questions,” which, according to the court decision, lie in the hands of the executive and legislative branches, as well as tort law exceptions of “sovereign immunity” (METZGAR, et al. v KBR, INC., et al. 2009, 13-14). Such wartime logics expand the state of exception to the theaters of war themselves. As such, the US judiciary is neither liable for what its executive branch does in the name of national security, nor is its executive branch liable for where it does what it does in the global war on terror. As a result, the slow(er) trauma of wartime goes mostly unacknowledged in the post-9/11 era. Here, “time becomes a vital force...” in creating “new kinds of chronic wounds and wounding” (Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019, 507).

As the example of the burn pits demonstrates, the state of emergency declared after the September 11th terrorist attacks reveals the production of exceptional states, or hegemonic powers acting beyond the confines of domestic and international law (also see Riess 2012; Bonds 2016; Lawrence 2019; Logan 2019; South 2019). Abandoning citizens and non-citizens alike—Afghani and Iraqi civilians were also exposed to the burn pits—9/11 memory coalesces hegemonic power at the borderlands of wartime and crisis, law and exception, trauma and memory, conveniently forgetting the violence it produces in its name. Here, various counterterrorism strategies and technologies “morph into long-term killers, creating landscapes that inflict lingering, off-camera casualties” hidden in the “temporal camouflage” of wartime (Nixon 2011, 210; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019).

Beyond the spatially bounded site of Ground Zero, recognizing “the permeable surfaces between human bodies, ecological systems, and political events” implicates other victims relationally bound to the towers’ collapse who also suffer from the less visible devastations of war and terrorism (Bosworth 2017, 21; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019).

Discursively locating sources of threat externally, the national security narrative embedded in 9/11 memory and within the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s mnemonic ecosystem, not only abdicates internal sources of violence and violation. It also erases geographically and geopolitically “elsewhere victims”, human and nonhuman, by locating those beyond the afflicted site as removed from its community of victims (Fluri 2014, 795; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019). Emphasis on “Never Forget” resilience at the New World Trade Center, for instance, not only “situate[s] security within the homeland,” but it also “a/effectively shroud[s] the flesh-and-bone devastation of US military violence elsewhere,” thereby enforcing exclusionary narratives of victimization and loss (Fluri 2014, 795; Micieli-Voutsinas and Cavicchi 2019). Thus, in the liminal spaces between memory and forgetting, inclusion and exclusion, the state makes its stakes in disaster management known.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics