Memorial Misgivings

REVIEW: 'The Outsider'

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September 12, 2021

More than 70 million people living in the United States today were born after 9/11. That includes the 13,238 children born on September 11, 2001, who will celebrate their 20th birthdays as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

They'll hear about it, of course, from their parents and grandparents. They'll learn about it in school and read about it in books. And if they haven't already, they may one day journey to what was once called Ground Zero and visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

The memorial is solemn and captivating, and the museum full of artifacts, images, and remembrances of those lost. In other words, it's precisely what anyone of sound mind would expect the 9/11 Memorial to be—which makes it all the more shocking that its creators wanted something radically different.

That's the main takeaway of The Outsider, a new documentary about the creation of the 9/11 Memorial. Directed by husband and wife team Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder, the film largely focuses on the museum's creative director, Michael Shulan. The titular outsider was a struggling novelist who garnered attention after assembling a makeshift remembrance gallery in a SoHo storefront.

Rosenbaum and Yoder had access to the creative team from the beginning and shot 670 hours of footage through the memorial's opening in March 2014. Aside from the occasional voiceover, The Outsider consists mostly of the footage and interviews they shot. The sparse production lets Shulan and others speak for themselves—which explains why the museum is suing Rosenbaum and Yoder for damaging its reputation.

Throughout the documentary, we watch Shulan clash with museum director Alice Greenberg over the direction their project should take. Greenberg envisioned a memorial to commemorate the events of 9/11. Shulan, meanwhile, envisioned a museum that would "create a story with open questions." Shulan believed that "the actual history of 9/11 is a work in progress," and a museum should reflect that.

Shulan never comes out and says exactly what he means. But it's easy to piece it together. He and his allies didn't want a patriotic memorial. They didn't want visitors to feel hurt or angry at what happened. As others interviewed in the film suggest, this contingent would have been happier with exhibits that criticized President Bush or explored how American foreign policy had "caused" the attacks.

The Outsider hardly paints Shulan in a sympathetic light. But it frequently prompts the viewer to consider the difference between museums and memorials—the latter a place for uncritical reflection, the former a place to be challenged with facts. Everyone interviewed in the documentary seems to agree that this is an important difference that injects inherent tension in the idea of a "Memorial & Museum."

That may be true, and perhaps the people behind the 9/11 museum should have come down on one side or the other. But dwelling on this point elides the simple truth of the matter. Memorials can be informative, and museums—specifically museums dedicated to specific tragedies—don't need to be coldly skeptical. You don't visit a cemetery to dwell on the faults of the dead. It's just that simple.

Shulan claims he's being democratic. Citizens of democracies are allowed, perhaps even obligated, to interrogate their country. And he's right. Which is why Americans can debate the causes and meaning of 9/11 in books, in college classrooms, and on television. There are plenty of venues to consider whether America bears partial responsibility for the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. Ground Zero is not one of them.

Perhaps Shulan and his ilk really thought their idea for a critical memorial was the best way to honor what we lost on 9/11. But it's doubtful. A more likely explanation is that they wanted to make themselves the story. That's why they tried to make the memorial controversial. It's why they let a documentary crew film them for over a decade and why they sued when they weren't presented as visionary heroes.

Artists, writers, and intellectuals have a tendency to overthink simple things. And, indeed, some things deserve to be overthought. But what happened on 9/11 is ultimately very simple. A group of men who hate America thought of a way to kill thousands of Americans, quickly and publicly. As the Wall Street Journal's Matthew Hennessy recently put it, "Islamism's butcher's bill is long and bloody. They were trying to kill us before 9/11; they won't give up now."

It's been 20 years since 9/11, and Afghanistan has once again fallen to the Taliban. Twenty percent of the country has no firsthand memory of the day the towers fell. Those people, and the countless Americans who will come after them, will need to be taught what happened that morning in September. They'll need to learn to remember. And at the 9/11 Memorial they can, because Michael Shulan failed.