Terrorism: A Tourist’s Dream

Picture a typical tourist attraction: the likely soundtrack of children playing, the sight of selfie-sticks being extended, litter blowing past like tumbleweed.

Now, think of a site that bears literal resemblance to a mass grave, a place where nearly 3,000 people were killed, and one of the places where international fear was born.

Would selfie-sticks, hot dog stands and souvenirs be considered acceptable?

It is, if you observe the millions of tourists that visit the September 11 National Memorial in New York.

A place where just the footprint of the infamous Twin Towers remains has become a place that delicately tip-toes between the worlds of public spectacle and private grief, and a place for the perfect Instagram opportunity.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum cost more than $700 million to construct, and has drawn over 35 million local and international visitors. It’s considered a must-visit location for tourists, with some visiting to pause and reflect and others to satisfy the morbid fascination so engrained in and encouraged by modern media.

The memorial itself is, from personal experience, certainly something to behold. It’s designed to evoke emotion, and as the winner of the competition held to design the 9/11 memorial, literally ‘reflects absence’. I visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum on a particularly rainy November day, where the sky provided a gloomy backdrop and rain drops fell like tears on the names of those who passed away.

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Pictures from my visit to the September 11 National Memorial

I’d been that person who watched the documentaries yearly when September came around, and had been, for want of a better word, excited to go and visit the memorial. I hesitated though, to pull my phone out, to capture an image where the enormous towers used to stand and where too many people fell to rest. It provoked sense of grief that I had no right to be attached to, and the belowground museum filled with blood stained shoes and enlarged pictures of people jumping out of burning towers and an entire room withholding the possessions of the terrorists made me feel like I was almost trapped down there, and that I needed to ride the escalator back up to a now appealing rainy day.

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The mural that greets you upon entrance to the September 11 National Museum, featuring 2,983 tiles in various shades of blue that New York’s citizens remembered the sky to be on the morning of 9/11

Social Media Circus

Months after my visit, I saw a picture posted on my Instagram feed of someone looking into the distance wistfully, while posing in front of the towers’ footprints. I couldn’t understand the motivation behind it: yes it was a photo opportunity in front of a site that’s revered globally, but it’s also the only place so many families have to visit a lost loved one.

Since the memorial’s construction, an observatory, transit hub and $4.4 billion Westfield mall have been added to the World Trade Centre’s precinct. Family members of those who lost their lives fear the site is becoming the ultimate tourist hub: where children play and sit on the names of the dead, where rubbish swims in the fountain pools and where people take smiling selfies in front of the towers’ footprints.

It’s become this literal concrete representation of our attitude towards terrorism: an everyday part of life that we can walk past, live amongst, take a picture of, and forget about once a date like September 11 passes every year.

Take the recent Chelsea Bombing in New York, for example. The phrase ‘Pray for Manhattan’ immediately began trending on Twitter, but New York locals, on the other hand, perceived it as an inconvenience to their daily routine.

CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent, Jim Sciutto, even went as far to write the event off as possibly serious, but not 9/11’s standard of terrorism.

The Chelsea bombing was ‘intentional, violent, and criminal’, as described by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. He stopped at naming the bombing as an act of terror, and the move follows comments made by France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls that France would just have to ‘live with terrorism’.

It’s a somewhat sensible reaction to have: it doesn’t encourage fear mongering, it doesn’t jump to severe conclusions, and it doesn’t lend power to those who so desperately want it.

Any sensibility instilled by world leaders, though, is immediately stomped on by instantaneous sensationalism worldwide media imposes on terrorism. It’s hard to even really understand what terrorism is thanks to the exaggerated nature of worldwide media. The concept of terrorism is ultimately a strategy that aims to instill fear into its target population, and to provoke violent responses to terrible actions.

It could be suggested that the most immediate responses that could be considered violent are from the media.

Media’s Moral Panics

The rolling coverage of any threat perceived as terror trickles directly into our living rooms, computers, phones, and tablets so often that we become immune to it: that these attacks that take place are shocking at first, but transition into yesterday’s news as 24-hour news cycle rolls on.

The day before my November trip to New York, Paris suffered its worst terrorist attack in modern history. The news coverage in America rolled 24 hours a day, with special attention being paid to the possible threat of an imminent attack in Times Square. People tried to make sense of what had happened by grasping at some attachment to the attack, reposting images created by artists that depicted the French flag crying, and the world giving France a hug.

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The main artistic image the world embraced following the 2015 Paris attacks

The constant worldwide scrutiny by television and social media even forced French officials to plead with media outlets not to relay unconfirmed information, and not to discuss confidential police activities directly related to the attack.

The 2014 Sydney siege was also a media and tourist attraction in itself, where people took selfies near the Lindt café, and camera crews camped out as the hostage situation stretched into the night. The man holding the 18 hostages within the café kept updated on news reports, as it allowed him to understand police movements and tactics outside the café. The blow-by-blow reporting by Australia’s media meant we found out some of the hostages had escaped before he did, and it prompted dire consequences to occur for those still being held inside the café.

Accelerated Grieving Periods

It took 34 months for New York’s tourism industry to totally recover from the impact of the 9/11 attacks, and 9 months for London’s industry to bounce-back from the 2005 attack. Fast-forward to 2015, where tourists caught up in Tunisia’s resort shooting even opted to remain at the hotel and finish their holiday, despite being offered immediate travel back home.

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White roses placed on the names of those who lost their lives in 9/11 if it is their birthday

This type of accelerated grieving period we allow for terror-related attacks reflects the increasingly accelerated news cycle we experience. We place intense focus on every minute detail involved in terrorist attacks, and then move on quickly because the news does too. The media acts as a device in promoting fear, and amplifying issues that are defined as important depending on how much attention they receive.

It raises a difficult question: would terrorist attacks decline if the media presented them responsibly? Australian media, in particular, carefully treads a fine line when it comes to reporting suicide, as it’s feared lending attention to such a social issue will encourage copycat behaviour.

Although it’s impossible it say any attack is a direct result of intense media attention, it’s not hard to imagine someone intrigued by terrorist ideologies being influenced by the free platform that’s willingly provided worldwide media.

Major French media outlets are implementing a publishing blackout, opting to not name or publishing pictures of terrorists involved in attacks in a bid to stop glorifying and drawing further attention to their actions. Much like the reaction of New York’s Mayor, the move stops terrorism from seeping into our everyday lives. It doesn’t give credit to those who commit acts of terror, and halts that immediately violent reaction the media so often gifts to those responsible.

Bill de Blasio describing the Chelsea bombing as an ‘intentional act’

If the media can sensibly report any possible future attacks, maybe we can learn to react responsibly: not give in to crippling fear, not gift much-wanted attention to the perpetrators and remember those lost with respect. I still don’t understand why the September 11 National Memorial Museum has dedicated an entire room to the people who orchestrated and carried out the attack, and don’t know if I ever really will.

But maybe the Museum itself best represents the attitude we should strive to attain: keep the remnants of devastation below ground where we can still reach it, but encourage us to ride the escalator back up to a hopefully sunnier day.


Originally published at The Isthmus.

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