One of the most interesting — and mildly infuriating — moments of my wife and I’s recent trip to New York was our visit to the 9/11 Memorial.
First, if you haven’t been to New York, understand that there are a lot of tourists there. And it’s not just Americans. People from all over the world visit the city every day, particularly in the summer. New York, especially Times Square, is very much the proverbial melting pot it’s made out to be, and that extends to the tourists. You can be anywhere in the city and you wouldn’t be able to tell if the person next to you was from North Dakota or Germany, Long Island or Italy.
The only place where we noticed a stark difference between American and foreign tourists was the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, which we visited along with thousands of others the Sunday before Labor Day.
There, we walked by as people cried or silently soaked in the site and what it meant to New Yorkers and Americans. I did the later, trying to grasp the scope of it all, imagine what it must have been like there 13 years ago today and remember what it felt like that day during my senior year of high school when the world changed. We even overheard one woman tell a person she was with about how she lost her brother that day.
We felt odd taking photos of ourselves beside the memorial, opting instead to take ones of the memorial itself, the beautiful twin waterfalls and reflecting pools, and the new One World Trade Center building, all of which are stunning. The new skyscraper — often called the Freedom Tower, though that isn’t it’s name — that has replaced the twin towers still doesn’t seem real, even when you’re standing right next to it. It’s so shiny, clean and new that it almost looks like a computer-generated image inserted into the Manhattan skyline.
What amazed us most, however, was how many tourists — both foreign and American — did not seem to hold the same attitude we did about site. For some — not all, I must emphasize — it was just another stop on New York City’s parade of tourist attractions, no different than the Trinity Church up the street or the stores along Fifth Avenue.
Little attention seemed to be paid to what the 9/11 Memorial actually meant, or how the twin waterfalls built where the twin towers once stood are meant to symbolize the buildings falling and the loss of life that day, or how they’re meant to be a place of serenity and sanctuary in an otherwise loud and never-resting city.
While walking from the subway to the memorial, we ended up on the same sidewalk as a group of about 20 soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues. I later concluded from their arm patches that they were a Puerto Rican National Guard unit. We spoke to their two commanding officers who were trailing about 50 feet behind the unit. The officers said the soldiers were soon to be deployed overseas and were being taken to the memorial to that day to “see what they’re fighting for.”
As we trailed behind the soldiers, we watched as they walked up to the South Tower waterfall and reflecting pool and had to peered over a crowd of onlookers to try and get their own up-close look at the bronze plates where names of the 2,983 victims are inscribed.
While no one else there — aside from the soldiers themselves — knew that these men and women were about to head overseas to serve our country, we found it disheartening and a bit maddening that crowds of people — certainly a mix of both American or foreigner tourists — opted not to stand aside and allow the soldiers an opportunity to a look at the memorial.
After a couple minutes, most people seemed to realize that a large group of soldiers was standing behind them and, eventually, they stepped aside.
Still, I couldn’t help but think that if this would have happened a couple years after the events of 9/11, everyone would have graciously and immediately stepped aside for the soldiers. It got me thinking.
Have we already forgotten our history about 9/11? Do we not understand that the memorial was built to remember nearly 3,000 American and foreign lives lost that day (12 percent of those who died on 9/11 were foreign nationals or visitors)? Do we not understand that our soldiers are still fighting terrorists who threaten our way of life?
My visit to Ground Zero was a stark reminder of what happened 13 years ago and how this terrible loss of life changed our society. I believe the 9/11 Memorial accomplishes that, even if some don’t see it that way.