Early in January this year, I visited the National September 11 Memorial in New York City.
In 2001, I was eleven years old. I don’t remember much about that day, but I do recall sitting in front of the television and watching German news coverage that showed how these planes crashed into the towers. I don’t remember what I felt or thought about what I saw, but I know that I did not understand the significance of the events until many years later. After all, this was happening in America, not where I was; I was not personally affected by what was going on. There must have been a minute of silence held in my school, and I am sure that – just like everywhere in the world – the attacks were on the news every day for weeks. I just don’t remember any of that.
Visiting the memorial was very moving, but it also made me feel strangely alienated. Being reminded of all these lives that were lost, about all these people who had lost loved ones made me incredibly sad. I went there with a friend from Boston who shared his own memory of that day with me, which was touching and also gave me a better understanding of the meaning and impact of what happened. At the same time, even though I now know a lot more about the impact that these attacks had both literally and in a figurative sense, I am still only an observer who is watching from the outside, who feels a little out of place at this site which symbolizes national grief. I can feel with the people who were affected, but I cannot feel what they feel.
The booklet that was given to visitors says that the National September 11 Memorial “commemorates the lives lost, recognizes the thousands who survived, and allows visitors to come together again in the spirit of unity that emerged in the wake of 9/11.” I think it is remarkable that this memorial is meant to evoke not only the memory of the victims but also something as intangible as “the spirit of unity,” which is “only” an emotion. I personally don’t remember feeling the spirit of unity, just like I don’t remember anything else that I felt in 2001. But a place like the 9/11 memorial is important: it helps empathize with the people who were directly affected, and even if it fails to evoke an emotion that was not felt by all visitors, I am confident that it may succeed in creating this emotion.