As another September 11 anniversary arrives, the anticipated opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum remains stalled, its funding mired in controversy, its completion date uncertain. One of the greatest tensions that haunts the museum design is how to contextualize September 11 within a global political and historical story, rather than to tell it as an exceptional, unique story of a shocking event. While it will include a short and contained history of Al Qaeda, with tiny photos of the hijackers, the history told by the museum will end in 2002. But this is for political rather than historical, or, more significantly, educational reasons.
That the September 11 Museum will be shaped by politics is entirely predictable, indeed, the norm with memorial museums. This is because they bear twin, but conflicting, responsibilities. As memorials, such museums are defined by modes of commemoration; as museums, they are tasked to answer what happened, how, and why. Inevitably, reflecting on the reasons why of an event can make the deaths mourned seem futile, and so such museums tread with fear in telling history.
Despite these daunting obstacles, the September 11 Museum has the opportunity to shape a broader understanding of this event within global history -- there are many recent models for this approach in recent efforts at memorialization throughout the Americas. However, there is a key difference between these memorial museums and the September 11 Museum -- these projects see these tragedies within the broader and more powerful context of human rights.
Museums of memory are proliferating throughout the Americas in El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. These museums bear witness to the deaths of tens of thousands who were tortured, murdered, and disappeared under political regimes, both democratic and authoritarian, over the last several decades. Virtually all are both national and local efforts, initiated by families of lost loved ones and survivors, most often in fraught negotiations among a host of governments and non-governmental agencies. Unlike the September 11 Museum, these Latin American museums focus not only on commemoration but also on the histories of violence in the struggles for human rights.
In Montevideo, Uruguay, the exhibit of the Museum of Memory, which remembers the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, begins in the 1960s with a story of the kidnapping and brutalization of a student activist and emphasizes the lives of the dictatorship's political prisoners, who at one point numbered the highest per capita in the world.
In El Salvador, thousands of school children visit and are visited by the Museum of the Word and the Image, a dynamic, interactive site weaving culture and traumatic political memories, from the peasant massacre of 1932, to the civil war from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. It links human rights issues of the past to those of the present, including stories of Salvadorans fleeing a U.S.-sponsored war in the 1980s and contemporary stories of Salvadorans migrating to the U.S. to escape poverty and drug violence.
Visitors to Argentina's ESMA, the country's largest former military clandestine detention center, enter an eerie and largely empty space. At this site, where approximately 5,000 citizens, primarily young people, were tortured and disappeared during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, visitors are accompanied by a guide who explains the broad global histories of Latin American state terrorism, including U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, and military involvement.
In Ayacucho, Peru, indigenous women have constructed a House of Memory to remember the brutality of the internal armed conflict from 1980-2000, in which an estimated 69,000 citizens were killed. The House of Memory stands in the region of the most brutality and is primarily a commemoration of lost loved ones. In addition, in the capital of Lima, a government-appointed commission is currently working to design a Museum of Memory that places the internal armed conflict into historical and global context.
In Chile, the government inaugurated a national Museum of Memory and Human Rights to remember the time of the country's military dictatorship (1973-90), in which tens of thousands were tortured and thousands killed. The Chile Memorial Museum begins with the day of the military coup d'etat (coincidentally, on September 11, 1973) and visitors see an exhibit that places Chile's attempts to come to terms with the violations in a larger regional and international context, featuring images of countries all over the world addressing human rights violations.
Seeing the September 11 Museum in the context of these museums of memory throughout the Americas it is difficult to escape a haunting, nagging connection among them all. They remind us that these histories do not stand alone, that the history of the last half century has been one of radical challenges to capital and empire, with state terrorism as an extreme response of violence to thwart these challenges and that the United States has played a key role in this violence.
If the September 11 Memorial Museum could tell the history of 9/11 in a meaningful way, it too would have to address the question of human rights -- not only to see terrorism as violence against human rights, but also to examine the abuses of human rights committed by the United States in response to that day's tragedy -- the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the drone wars. The question of human rights allows us to see how the tragic deaths of those ordinary people who were caught up in history on September 11, 2001 are connected to the tragic deaths that have followed from it -- a history of terror, tragedy, revenge, a history in which a nation attacked deployed this event to wreak wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, thousands of them American, and destroyed the lives of high numbers of disabled veterans.
When it does open, the September 11 Memorial Museum will be the most visited destination at Ground Zero, and the most important site in the nation where the meaning of September 11 in American history will be established. Seeing this event in the context of human rights will help us to remember that September 11 is more than just one day.