Second Thought: Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Real Progress, Not Synthetic Grief

9/11 exhibit reminds us to think hard about changing American society.


After having brunch with friends a few weeks ago, they lured me to the “September 11: Bearing Witness to History” exhibit at the Museum of Science and History here in Fort Worth. The traveling display had just made the trek from Washington, D.C., and was ready to roll. I was a bit reluctant about going, and I have to admit that I felt very much in the minority once we got to the exhibit, a bit ill at ease.

Essentially, it went like this: Outside awaiting entry were people decked out in their “I (heart) New York!” shirts, paying homage to one of the great towns that was attacked just two years ago. Paying homage to the folks going to work that day (Sept. 11, 2001, have you forgotten?) whose plans were most certainly not to be an end result of a) America’s foreign policy; b) some group hating us for our freedom; or c) whatever ‘ism you buy into, in these regards.

Once inside the exhibit, I did not last long. Before I explain why, I must say that this exhibit is going to be a bit different for everyone — people will react differently based on their life experiences. The main event in my life relative to all of this was working in downtown Oklahoma City at the time of the Murrah bombing, and watching many of the synthetic grieving that followed. A while after that, I moved to Boston as part of what was going to be a gradual transition to New York City. I planned to move there in late 2001, when I hoped a friend’s apartment would become available to me. The events of 9/11 ended all that and I’m back here now, quite obviously.

So to explain the exhibit. There were items from the trade center: a smashed filing cabinet, and shoes a fellow wore while running down the stairs to safety. The phone on which someone received a call from a passenger on one of the hijacked planes. There were several large photos, like the shot of the agent telling Bush what had happened, while he was reading to those children (oh how I miss those pre-no defense contractor left behind days!), as well as monitors showing the news anchors who broke the news as the events unfolded. Flanking most of these items were Kleenex boxes for individuals who might get sad, or for the visiting “if it bleeds it leads” news anchors who might become overly excited viewing the monitors, thinking how orgasmic it might be for them and their careers if only they were to break a big story like this one someday.

I watched a guy in a crying eagle t-shirt scratching his head as he looked at the mangled filing cabinet (his wife wore the default I-heart-NYC shirt). I couldn’t help but think that this couple and many others will figure that, by attending the exhibit, they have made their contribution to resolving the questions of terrorism and anti-Americanism that led to 9/11. On the other hand, folks like me may think that making observations about synthetic patriots and synthetic grief are their contribution to solving the problem. Both, of course, are at best counter-productive, but it is so hard to do anything else in our ever angry and fragmented culture.

My own trip through the exhibit took all of about 10 or 15 minutes, because it made me so uneasy. I saw a mother arguing with her husband about whether their young child should be looking at some of the more sensitive items. No fault in that — it’s hard enough to raise kids even without hellish things going on in the world like terrorism.

So my question after a not-so-wonderful exhibit viewing is, how should we remember our fallen Americans, rather than solely through things like this exhibit? For me, I think it involves things like finding out why these things happened, through very open and objective means. Being from Oklahoma City, and having seen what happened there, it frightens me when things like Trinity Railway Express and bus routes are cut, so much so that people are unable to get to their jobs, which could quite easily lead to someone doing something pretty drastic, in an act of hopeless rage. I could go on and on like that, there are better examples that can be made.

So here’s my bottom-line reaction to this exhibit: We all need to get involved in making America a better place, one that is less driven by consumerism, less reactionary, one that respects people’s lives and work while they are living and working, rather then only when those lives are over and done, a society that could respect, for instance, the idea of the unions that so many of those brave, fallen firefighters supported. Then, one fine day, oh the exhibits we will get to see!

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