THE BLOG
06/09/2014 09:51 am ET | Updated Aug 09, 2014

The 9/11 Memorial Museum: Appealing to the Head or the Heart?

The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened with great controversy last month. Among the criticisms were complaints about a documentary shown in the museum called The Rise of Al Qaeda. Some religious leaders and interfaith groups felt that the film employed problematic and poorly defined terminology, such as "Islamist" and "jihad," that might lead visitors to conflate Islam and terrorism.

I visited the museum with a friend a couple of weeks ago to see what all of the hubbub was about and to gain some insight for a book that I am writing that includes a section on the problematic ways that the story of 9/11 is told in the U.S.

On the one hand, the museum did a better job than I thought it would of defining Islamism and of setting al Qaeda apart from other Islamist organizations, not to mention mainstream Muslims. This came through less in the documentary and more in the informational displays in the room dedicated to explaining al Qaeda. One of these displays even noted that Islamist groups differ on when or if violence is justified to achieve political ends.

On the other hand, I did have some qualms with the museum's content concerning the rise of al Qaeda. For example, the information displays assure visitors that the U.S. did not directly fund "foreign militants" (i.e., Arabs) who fought against the Soviets in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, only Afghans. The claim is misleading. It implies that the U.S. played no significant role in aiding those who eventually formed al Qaeda. We now know that a cornerstone of the Reagan administration's approach to the war was enlisting the help of the Saudi government to raise money to fund the mujahideen (the U.S. was already providing significant funding and weaponry). Osama bin Laden was recruited by Saudi intelligence to help in this fundraising. From there, bin Laden went on to enlist so-called "Arab Afghans" to join their Afghan brothers in the fight against the Soviets. All of this was made possible by U.S. Cold War policy.

Moreover, we know that the CIA created training camps for Afghan mujahideen, who in turn passed on what they learned (guerrilla warfare, urban terrorism, how to use explosives, etc.) to the Arab mujahideen, some of whom eventually formed al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, one does not walk away from the museum with a strong sense that the U.S. and its foreign policy constitute one of the core chapters in the rise of al Qaeda. The museum simply doesn't go there. In fact, much of the information in the al Qaeda section and in a section devoted to the War on Terror barely scratches the surface. What visitors encounter in these sections comes across more as "information dumps" than attempts to stimulate critical thinking about the causes and consequences of 9/11. In fact, it's safe to say that these sections are quite marginal to the overall museum experience.

I believe this is by design. The museum's purpose is to generate an emotional response, not an analytical one. My friend and I noted repeatedly how presentist the museum is. Monitors showing what was at the time breaking television news coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC), newspaper headlines from that afternoon, 911 emergency calls, all sorts of video footage and photographs of the planes penetrating the twin towers - the museum goes to great lengths to transport you back to September 11, 2001. It wants you to feel what it was like on that day. It wants you to focus your emotional energy on that day.

To facilitate this, the museum labors to connect you emotionally and even physically to the site of the WTC and to the victims who perished in the towers. Maps throughout the museum show visitors where they are standing in relation to the original WTC buildings. Memorabilia salvaged from the WTC, from children's clothing to receipts for office supplies, are on display. You can reach out and touch some of the original steel frames of the WTC.

Without a doubt, the most powerful part of the museum are the sections dedicated to telling the stories of the victims. You can sit in one dark room where pictures of individual victims are displayed, along with brief bios and audio commentary from a loved one telling an anecdote about the person they lost on 9/11. The stories are moving in their ordinariness. In my time there, I "met" a newlywed, an art aficionado, a fan of Norse mythology, and a former high school jock - all victims of the attacks. One audio commentary was from a woman whose sister died on 9/11. She described how her sister loved to do Barbara Streisand imitations. None of the commentaries from loved ones were angry or vengeful. They came across as profound reflections on what it means to go on living life with wounds that never fully heal.

Is the 9/11 Museum worth visiting? Absolutely. It does a solid job of generating a heartfelt experience that connects visitors to the pain, suffering, and loss that marks that day and indeed the human condition.

Does the museum create a deeper understanding of why 9/11 happened and the global repercussions of the subsequent War on Terror? No, it does not. The museum appeals to the heart, not to the head. We are not meant to analyze 9/11 too much but to feel what it was like to be caught up in the chaos and profound sorrow of that day. At one level, I can appreciate this appeal to the heart. But we still have a long way to go when it comes to deepening our knowledge and understanding about the day that changed everything.