Hangar 17 at the JFK International Airport in New York City contains some of the strangest objects we might expect to encounter under the description artifacts. Twisted steel beams; battered and burned cars and ambulances; odd personal items bearing the traces of violence; items from a mall once lively with customers but no more—this is the stuff of many possible memorials to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States, collected and preserved for that very purpose. The strangest thing is, this hangar, in all its unpretentious modesty may be the best memorial of its kind to the event that will ever be devised. Unsentimental yet heart-wrenching to anyone with imagination, the straightforward presentation of these artifacts speaks directly to the impact of the attacks on so-called ordinary people who were killed in the course of their so-called ordinary lives. As we know in the years since the attacks, the impact has been enormous on everyone’s life, ordinary and not.
This raises the question at to what is the purpose of the artifacts in Hangar 17, and the anticipated memorials for which they are intended? To stir the memories of people in diverse places of the terrorist attacks? If so, how can these strangely anonymous objects awaken such memories? And if that is the goal of displaying the artifacts, what is the point of awakening these memories, assuming that this is a good and necessary thing to do?
It is obvious, I think, that the events of 9/11 opened a new period in the history of human society, one still clouded by an ambivalence of meaning. The victims of the attack didn’t willingly sacrifice their lives for a noble cause, but were innocent bystanders who happened to inhabit buildings that were symbols the terrorists—who did willingly sacrifice their lives—destroyed for symbolic reasons.
I personally have no sympathy for mass murder in the name of symbolism, and denounce the arracks on the World Trade Center. Still, it is hard for me to escape the feeling that the twisted steel, crushed vehicles, and scraps of clothing can too easily be understood as memorials to the terrorists as much as to their victims, because the terrorists can display the same artifacts from the places terrorized by those we presume to be ‘good guys’.
But the important point here, I believe, is that memorials cannot any longer commemorate death and destruction in the name of noble causes, but must somehow affirm the ultimate value of human life, under whatever name it goes. So, let these artifacts stay in Hanger 17, where they can be pored over by specialists for their various purposes. Or—more difficult—let them be creatively transformed into a new generation of memorials that celebrate the living.
Photos above and below were made by Francesc Torres, and are taken from the book by him entitled “Memory Remains.”
(below) Items from the WTC shopping mall:
(below) Personal items found in the rubble of the World Trade Center:
(below) A category of artifacts called “composites,” comprised of many items and materials fused together by intense pressure and heat: