‘Jules, This is Brian’

Feature: A Visit to New York City’s 9/11 Museum

A view of the National September 11 Memorial Museum with the north reflecting pool in foreground
A view of the National September 11 Memorial Museum with the north reflecting pool in foreground / AP

The 9/11 Museum’s main exhibit is a by-the-minute walkthrough of the events of the day in question, housed in what was once a sub-basement of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Shortly after beginning it, one encounters the following artifact: the final recorded words of Brian Sweeney. The visitor listens to them by using a telephone mounted on the exhibit’s wall.

Sweeney was a 38-years-old aeronautics consultant and former Navy fighter pilot. He left this message on his wife Julie Sweeney’s phone at 8:59 a.m. on September 11, 2001:

Jules, this is Brian listen, I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you, I want you to do good, go have good times, same to my parents and everybody, and I just totally love you, and I’ll see you when you get there. Bye, babe. I hope I call you.

At 9:00 a.m., Sweeney called his mother and got through, speaking to her for about a minute, and indicating to her that passengers were considering a plan to retake the aircraft. At 9:03 a.m., the plane—United Flight 175—disintegrated between the 77th and 85th floors of the South Tower.

If, like me, a visitor to the museum feels that they are not quite up to actually listening to Brian Sweeney’s final words, the text of the message is inescapable, as it is inscribed prominently on the wall above the telephones. These words constitute the beginning of a sustained plateau of emotion, which the designers of the museum seem to have anticipated. There are doors through which one can escape the exhibit early—one is right next to the Sweeney recording. The lighting is low and provides an abundance of shadow. To me it seemed that we visitors were avoiding examining each other’s faces.

Having lacked the fortitude to actually put the phone to my ear—and having taken a moment to collect myself—I noted with relief that no one else seemed to be listening to the recording either. People would file by, read the text on the wall, look at the floor, and keep moving. At least, I thought, I’m not the only one who’s not up to the task.

A few minutes later I returned to the spot, hoping to gather further evidence that I was not uniquely weak in the emotional knees. I am embarrassed to record that I was disappointed to see a young woman standing there in the dark alone, phone to her ear, listening to the message. Her face displayed a grim and stony expression, but no loss of self-control.

Those planning to visit the museum should know that they will encounter this artifact and others of a similar power only after a lengthy descent into the excavated bowl in which the original towers were built, and only after having made their way through the Memorial Plaza with its twin fountains surrounded by black granite, inscribed with the names of the dead. One’s sentiment grows in inverse proportion to one’s altitude. The plaza is, during the day, a sterile place. This is not the fault of its designers but of the unmanageable presence of thousands of tourists, including rowdy school groups and families who seem more interested in taking and posing for photographs than in considering the scene. It more or less ruins the place.

The situation changes when one enters what is, for lower Manhattan, a modestly sized glass building through which one descends into the earth by a system of escalators and tunnels. You get the sense that you are going down to Hades, an impression reinforced upon emerging into the vast excavated space preserved below-ground within the original slurry wall—one side of which has been left exposed as the perimeter of the space—and seeing a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid on the wall of a repository of unidentified remains.

It says: "NO DAY SHALL ERASE YOU FROM THE MEMORY OF TIME."

Some objected to the use of the passage because reflection on its origin might make it seem inappropriate for victims of terrorism. It refers not to Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld but to the Trojan warriors Nisus and Euryalus who, having gone out at night to slaughter their enemies in camp, are separated in the dark. Refusing to abandon one another in the chaos of their discovery, they are killed together.

Others held that the original story was thematically appropriate, and that anyway the words standing alone seem completely fitting. What seems most clear is that not one in a thousand visitors to the museum will care even a little bit.

This was not the only controversy involving the museum. Some families of the victims objected to the presence of a gift shop near the entrance of the complex, especially considering that the museum space continues to hold human remains. The visitor will have to judge the propriety of the matter for himself: I saw nothing untoward in the books and other materials for sale, the proceeds of which go to supporting the museum. Arlington National Cemetery has a shop.

Others—not families in this case, but those for whom the 9/11 attacks present an extremely inconvenient fact—objected to the lack of a clear explanation that Islam is a religion of peace, and to the fact that a substantial amount of exhibit space is devoted to a history of al Qaeda and to an explanation of the historical background for the attacks, including a short film narrated by noted right-winger and Islamophobe Brian Williams. In this part of the museum—hold on to your seats, here—the words Islam, terrorism, and extremism appear in each other’s vicinities, and even once or twice in the same sentence. No doubt in 2002 this sort of hate speech was acceptable—like driving gasoline-powered cars or allowing schoolchildren to have hotdogs for lunch—but it is out of fashion now.

In an admirable display of backbone, the museum has declined to alter the exhibit, the narrative of which any fair-minded viewer will find to be one of those rare species, often discussed but rarely seen: an honest attempt at a thorough and balanced account.

Most interesting are the complaints of those who find the whole thing to be, well, a bit much. We may use as our principal example Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, who writes of the museum’s designers that:

Striving for catharsis and epiphany, they have created an oversized pit of self-pity, patriotic self-glorification and voyeurism, where visitors are allowed to feel personally touched by the deaths of people they didn’t know; where they can revel for a few hours in righteous grievance; where they repeat the pieties of our unresolved, pop-psych ideas about death and remembrance and rebirth and renewal. And maybe indulge thoughts of vengeance.

The criticism gives too many hints that, if the wallowing were to be in the muck of some tragedy that was more in line with Kennicott’s politics—having to do, say, with the suffering of the people of Gaza—his objections might be along different lines. Indeed, he nearly gives the game away when he writes elsewhere in his review that "Without exceptional restraint, [memorial museums] can catalyze new and ugly forms of nationalism." Heaven forbid.

For Kennicott, the problem with the new museum and, indeed, with 9/11 itself, is not only that the attacks were a vast human tragedy, but also that they caused Americans to feel a sense of solidarity in a manner of which he disapproves. Terrorism’s dangerous tragedy is that it tends to cause Americans to be patriotic—and patriotism is, after all, very likely to be only a few steps away from racism. Kennicott concludes:

As you ascend the escalators, from darkness to light, you hear the faint sound of a bagpipe playing from speakers hidden somewhere in the walls or ceiling, and perhaps you feel an involuntary tug of Anglo-Saxon reassurance. And for a moment the whole thing feels silly, pompous and a bit ridiculous, like a Mel Gibson movie.

In fairness to Kennicott, it is surely not just American patriotism, but all forms of nationalism, and any sort of pity thereunto relating, that bother him. And in more fairness—perhaps more than he deserves—even those visitors to the museum who, like me, lack Kennicott’s nuance and sophistication will have to admit: the exhibit can seem overwhelming.

Beginning with one’s descent into the slurry pit, the visitor hears in the darkened corridors snippets of news reports from the day, is suddenly confronted with artifacts like images of the ‘missing’ posters which appeared in lower Manhattan after the attacks, turns a corner and sees an entire crushed fire truck—and all this before entering the actual exhibits, where the emotional assault really hits its sustained peak, with continuous and thorough narratives of the four hijackings, the events in New York, in Arlington, and in Pennsylvania. By the time one gets to the explanatory background exhibit on al Qaeda, it’s a miracle one retains the emotional energy to be engaged at all, let alone scandalized.

The question, though, is: Should it be any other way? The fact that the attacks and the evil that caused them are inconvenient historical facts for some, and that remembering them is necessarily going to evoke strong emotions, doesn’t mean that it is somehow inappropriate to commemorate them at length and vividly. The same reasoning applies to Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. Indeed, it might be entirely appropriate, morally required, to cause visitors to feel "personally touched by the deaths of people they didn’t know."

I never knew Brian Sweeney. My personal connection to the 9/11 attacks is tenuous. My father, a professional bridge and tunnel man—literally: he was an expert on the security of bridges and tunnels—served on the commission that provided recommendations after the 1993 World Trade Center attack. And after my father’s death—by chance, just a few months before 9/11—and after the attacks, a colleague of his from the commission sent my mother a note recalling how the two of them had stood on the top of the North Tower watching the Goodyear blimp float by beneath them, and concluded that, short of turning Manhattan into a police state, nothing could really be done to protect those buildings. By all rights, the parts of the museum that should really affect me emotionally ought to be the portions dealing with the Pentagon, not that I knew anyone who died there personally, but because my father’s resting place—by chance—is less than half a mile away from the point of impact, in Arlington National Cemetery. You take a thing like that personally.

And yet it was Brian Sweeney’s last call and similar artifacts in the museum that really affected me. They almost all came from the Twin Towers and from accounts of what happened on board the hijacked flights. Some of the mysteries of human emotions are at work here, but what seems key is the way the museum confronts the visitor with the pathos, and in cases like Brian Sweeney’s (the awful and intimate photographs of the jumpers from the towers are another example) with the calmness, bravery, composure, and striving for dignity of those who knew they would die in a few minutes. By the nature of the attacks, these were situations more common in New York and on the flights than at the Pentagon.

The prolonged and intimate and, true, somewhat exhausting exposure to these moments that the 9/11 Museum provides is not a perverting experience, but an ennobling one. You should go, and you should take your children. Feeling a sense of solidarity with the victims because of your shared citizenship or—indeed, since many of the victims were not American—because of your shared humanity and sense of civilization and of right and wrong, is natural and good. When you struggle with your emotions at the sight of the enormous preserved shapes of the towers housing the exhibits in the underground space, at a murdered fireman’s singed equipment, at Brian Sweeney’s use of the nickname "Jules" for his wife, you are not an ugly nationalist. You are a human being.