I thought I was going to get a break this year, but I was wrong. The 9/11 Tribute in Light will go ahead despite its initial cancellation. Backlash from nationalists and supporters of the war on terror caused a stir, and media mouth pieces of the right — like the New York Post — published ridiculous editorials calling it “outrageous” that the tribute would not proceed. Now that the lights will be turned on, I will have to avoid the sight of Lower Manhattan tomorrow, like I do every year.
The project, which was facilitated by the art nonprofit Creative Time, first appeared in 2002. At the time, it was presented as a temporary installation and seemed like a joyous gesture during a moment when the trauma of the terror attack, amplified by the mainstream media, had numbed us all. We were searching for a collective way to mourn nearly 3,000 victims and move forward.
But the Tribute in Light, which was conceived by designers John Bennett, Gustavo Boneverdi, Richard Nash Gould, Julian LaVerdiere, and Paul Myoda, and lighting consultant Paul Marantz, is a monument to nationalism now, and I don’t say that lightly.
Soon after its creation, with the registry of Middle East-born males known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), followed by the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, the lights took on another meaning to many. The world had been transformed in a horrendous way, and the memorial became something similar to a symbol of irrational hate, though not only of the terrorists anymore. It became the most visible reminder that one was not allowed to criticize a war with no real purpose (remember, Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks), and of blind nationalism.
Starting in 2003, I found myself avoiding those two towers of light at all costs, and some years, I decided not to leave my apartment at all. As social media picked up speed in the late aughts, that avoidance was harder than ever, as people shared images as a form of visual solidarity, not realizing what it could mean for others.
Perhaps some people forgot the nationalist cult that developed post-9/11. Rather than use the moment to heal and correct paths, the US government, under the guidance of President George W. Bush, amplified the worst of this country. It appeared to blind most of the population and created a storm of hate towards SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) people and Muslims became the focus of new waves of hatred that have never subsided, though it was always present.
I, for one, was forced to register in NSEERS, which restricted my movements, not allowing me to use LaGuardia to fly to Canada, and prevented me from using many other points of entry and exit. The program also forced me to be photographed, questioned, and fingerprinted at least three hours before every flight, and every time I returned. As if that wasn’t enough, those long, uneasy waits in airports were accompanied by a mandated visit to the Homeland Security office in Lower Manhattan within a few days of my return.
The impact was everywhere in our lives. A cousin of mine broke up with his fiancée soon after the invasion because he couldn’t stomach the racist and ignorant comments of his partner’s family at the time. It was stomach-churning. He, along with many of us, were harassed by strangers who often started their aggression with some version of “You one of those who brought down the towers?” And I noticed how many of the SWANA people I knew would apologize and play the “good American” or “good immigrant,” distancing themselves from “those people” — the bad ones. I refused to do that. Others did too. Too many didn’t, and instead joined the cult of US nationalists; its pull was and continues to be strong, and it’s most noticeable incarnation nowadays wears a red hat.
The illegal invasion of Iraq alone caused over half a million deaths and resulted in lawlessness and national schisms that fermented new and more virulent terror groups, like ISIS, which in turn drove more death and displaced people from their homes. That violence spilled over to neighboring countries, like Syria, and now we’re in the mess we’re in today. A report this week from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University calculated that the War of Terror has uprooted 37 million people, including 9.2 million Iraqis (the report points out its estimates are conservative and the reality may be 48–59 million people). That’s the real cost.
The victims of 9/11 have a museum today. They are remembered, and the notion that some lights will do that more than a $700 million museum is ridiculous. Not to mention the 160,000 birds the “Tribute in Light” endangers every year.
A few years ago, I was moderating a panel on public art in New York, and one of the panelists said she thought the Tribute in Light was the greatest memorial in the city. My heart sank. This person didn’t realize how it was a thorn for many of us in a city we love. I didn’t say anything at the time because I was still scared, but I’m not any longer. I don’t love the Tribute in Light, I despise it. It’s time to mourn the 600,000+ Iraqis who have since died in a reactionary war, and turn the fucking lights off.
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Author: Hrag Vartanian