A few months after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York,
I visited the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. I was
drawn to it out of a desire to turn the almost celluloid television
event that was Hollywood-like in its magnitude into reality. On
one level my visit did this. The enormity of the calamity was immediately
apparent. The gaping space where the 110-storey Towers once stood
was a poignant marker of the size of the disaster. The heart-rending
messages on the fence surrounding the site and posters of the missing
a reminder of the human loss.
the same time, however, my visit was decidedly unreal. Tourists
clamoured for the best view of the site. Some disturbingly posed
for photographs smiling in front of the rubble. An array of tasteless
souvenirs were up for grabs. You could procure a roll of Osama Bin
Laden toilet paper with the message 'Osama Kiss My Butt' for a few
dollars. The pyre was still smouldering and people were making money.
Nothing felt sacred about the place. It was a sad mess.
on a trip to New York, I found myself drawn to the space again.
I was hoping for something different a few years on. I arrived at
the site via the newly-renovated World Trade Centre station, a large
clean area with stainless-steel finishes. The whole site was cleared,
contained and ready for development. The hawkers had been shunted
elsewhere. Signs urged visitors to keep the site special and not
to buy any items. Makeshift memorials and posters had been removed.
Memorial plaques had been erected, listing the names of those killed.
Of course, there were tourists, even those posing in front of the
site. But tourist buses shuffled people on and off the site without
much commotion. Everything seemed more subdued and ordered.
something remained amiss and reality still felt distorted. This
might be inevitable, considering the site is in the midst of an
energetic city with little time for reflection. The scale of the
devastation remains overwhelming. The attacks are also still recent.
How can we memorialise history while it is in the making?
But the most startling realisation I had on my second visit was
that, although Ground Zero now seems more ordered, this too was
an illusion. The mess has not gone away but has been transferred
elsewhere, namely to Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes this worse
is that the US reprisal attacks, especially on Iraq, regardless
of the commercial advantage to various US concerns, really boils
down to misguided revenge. In fact, the whole sorry situation, from
the attacks on the Towers to the US invasions, reek of vengeance
justified by a whole range of perverted moral claims.
These claims seem tragic in the true meaning of the word. In literature
a tragedy is a story in which a character is reduced to ruin because
of moral flaws in their character. There are those who feel that
the US has reaped what it sowed; its penchant for interfering in
the business of other countries, commercialism and exploitation
has meant that it finally got what it deserved. Equally, the you
are either with us or against us mentality advocated by George
W Bush is used to justify any action against those labelled as morally-bankrupt
'terrorist', no matter the consequence.
really, it is the mentality behind both of these views that is deeply
tragic. They teach us nothing about how to deal with fundamental
difference constructively and they do not enhance our ability to
address complex social problems one bit.
I walked away from Ground Zero for the second time, the message
I took away was simple: two wrongs just don't make a right.
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Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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