Selfies in the face of tragedy


One World Trade Centre, though still incomplete, has cemented its place as the defining landmark of the modern Lower Manhattan skyline.

Standing 541m high, the tower also provides an eerie sense of scale for visitors to the adjoining memorial to its predecessors

While visiting the National September 11 Memorial last Monday, I felt my stomach drop slightly as I looked up at the new skyscraper, then back to the giant waterfalls in the exact footprints of where the North and South towers stood 13 years ago.

The North Tower’s spire had been only 14 metres lower than the new One World Trade Centre, but it and its twin had taken only seconds to fall to the streets below.

What was more affecting however, was observing the reactions and behaviour of other people wandering around the memorial site. In particular, those people posing for photos on the edge of the aforementioned waterfalls. Smiling. Some even beaming.

It made me wonder what the protocol was for tourists visiting the site of a tragic event. Almost 3000 people died in this spot; is it appropriate to be posing for grinning selfies at the place dedicated to their memory?

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it was something that didn’t sit very well with me at the time. Anyway, more on that later.

Beneath the memorial is the recently opened September 11 Museum. For $24, you can take escalators down to the excavation site at Ground Zero. Artefacts include a destroyed fire engine, formerly straight steel girders bent due to the heat of the fires and the only glass pane to survive the collapse of the towers.

Beneath one of the waterfalls is a blow-by-blow account of the events unfolding that day, which included photographs, wreckage recovered from the fallen towers and, perhaps most disturbingly, audio recordings from air traffic control and emergency services workers (both survivors and the deceased), with the latter accompanied by a map showing where in the complex the words were spoken.

The atmosphere in the museum was completely different from that on the surface; I didn’t see one person posing for a photo, let alone smiling for one. Indeed, I heard more than a few sniffles, though I can’t say whether that was from the distress at seeing the exhibits or the stark temperature difference between the air conditioned museum and the New York summer outside.

I can see both points of view in the “smiling at memorials” issue. In a way, I guess it’s saying that despite this act of terrorism, we’re still carrying on with our lives, we will always remember the victims and continue on stronger than ever.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what the victims’ families would think of the issue. Tourists are smiling on top of their family members’ graves. Would you smile in The Killing Fields? Alongside the charred remains of a person at Pompeii? On the rail tracks leading into Auschwitz?

9/11 was perhaps the defining moment of anyone in my age group; like the John F Kennedy assassination for the Baby Boomers, everyone in the Western world can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of it.

I’m sure, then, that everyone has an opinion about how best to honour the memory of those killed in the attacks. So what do you think? Is it no different to smiling for photographs at any other tourist attraction, or should it be considered disrespectful?

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