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This 2013 work by Banksy appeared in an alley way in Tribeca, near the site of the 9/11 attack in New York, and it is one of many works that have sought to remember the victims of the 2001 terror attack. (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

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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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

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50 Comments

    1. This is why we can’t discuss anything anywhere. And yes, you’re a schmuck. Feel better?

      1. “This is why we can’t discuss anything anywhere”

        Because you can’t handle any dissent. like the rest of the woketards.

  1. “Backlash from nationalists and supporters of the war on terror”….. Actually the backlash is from the majority of the country that witnessed one of the most horrific days in American history. Also quit trying to use nationalism or patriotism as a negative. If you don’t love the country you live in then maybe you should consider finding a country that will accommodate your needs.

    1. The best you can come up with is to intimate that brown people should ‘go home’ with your ‘love it or leave it’ drivel? Well let me pop an equally trite and reductive one back at ya – if you don’t like what you read on Hyperallergic, go back to your hermetic world of Fox and Breitbart, Q fantasy and culture that peaks with chainsaw sculptures of eagles and firemen.

      Same to you Judaifrog.

      1. LOL, “Q fantasy”

        Now go on and tell us about how the Russians are hiding under your bed ready to steal your vote

    2. I was brought up to believe that America was strong enough, big enough to withstand and work past criticism of our country. My, how times have changed. And hey, how the F do all these right wing trolls find their way into EVERY ONLINE DISCUSSION? You can’t even read an aticle in VARIETY about declining cable tv subscriptions without some pissed off MAGA hat guy on his lawn lecturing you how content made for/about/with LGBTQ people is why people are cutting the cord. Get a life.

  2. Yes ,well. The event is one thing–the effects are another. Perhaps recognizing each in separate ways is a a solution to your view. But the people who died and their families, and the many first responders who worked ,suffered and in some cases died all deserve this acknowledgement and recognition.

  3. I think you reaction to the pillars of light is an excellent example of the potential and the cautions of visual language. A symbol created for one purpose can be interpreted entirely differently according to individual context and experience. Going forward from 9/11 the pillars can only grow in symbolism. With perspective it should accommodate a range of reactions accepted within the context of this massive trauma – yours included.

  4. im sorry for what you experienced post-9/11 and agree the faux-outrage from the right is obnoxious but im not sure how you jump from those points to “it’s a symbol of nationalism and must be cancelled.” maybe you have good reasons for making that argument but you certainly didn’t put them forward here…

    1. I had actually never heard of NSEERS (it has since been replaced under Obama by biometrics for every American passport holder and US-VISIT for foreigners, and never did catch a single terrorist). While seeming draconian and very Big Brother, it is actually the norm for many non-Western countries: China does this on ALL there citizens to enforce a class system based on political compliance. Immigrate (if even allowed) to many countries, or just visit any dictatorship, and you will be monitored by the government the whole time you are there, usually having your passport held. As a White Westerner and Christian you would likely also be socially persecuted, and as we have seen in some placed continually experiencing turmoil in Africa and SE Asia, targeted for terrorist attack, such as at religious centers or schools.

  5. If you were a New Yorker who experienced the attack you would feel much differently. We will go to our roof to night and see the lights and think of friends we lost.

  6. Pillars of light were a norm at nazi rallies. This was never a tribute to fallen American and was always meant as a trophy to those American politicians whose sympathize with the nazi party, like the G.H.W. Bush

    1. Actually, the TWO pillars of light directly represented the fallen Twin Towers, and have gradually shifted to represent the lives lost, not just Americans but citizens from all over the World. (also, I think you got the wrong Bush, but your grammar is also erroneous, so…)
      The pre-WW2 nazi rally lights were for a different purpose:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Light

      1. Yikes. The grammar was terrible. Should have looked that over first but I was getting ready to head out for the day. I did have the correct bush however, wasn’t referring to the president of the time, he was just a puppet.

  7. He has a right to his opinion just as he has a right to LEAVE this country if he does not like OUR policies and practices in which we as a FREE nation are allowed to enact. We did not start this conflict but we sure the F*k ended it with the demise finally of Osama BL.

    1. Yeah, cuz we’re so free here. The all caps really pushes your point home—you’ve totally convinced me now. Wow.
      We did start the conflict, btw. And it’s still not over.

  8. I’ve never thought of Tribute in Light as a symbol of nationalism. For me it’s a symbol of the world I want to see, a universal road out of darkness — whether it’s Muslim extremism or Trumpian, white nationalism.

    I am sorry for what you have endured. But standing on the banks of the Hudson at the DMVA in Jersey City with 100 people or so after the towers were hit, it’s a fact that the women (almost all under burqas if you know Jersey City in 2001) were silent. They were my neighbors and their simple mosque was 3 blocks from my apt. up on the hill away from the riverfront.

    The men cheered when the first tower fell. Yes, they cheered and praised Allah when the first tower fell before my eyes. TV reports were that 30,000 people were probably in the tower.

    Progressives want to kill me for stating that fact, but it is true. It makes my friends utterly crazy when I state my experience publicly.

    We could move forward better together, if I ever heard facts like this one admitted by presumably good people like you. It never happens, but just as I own Donald Trump, you own my experience that day — because this is how you have framed the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in your commentary here.

    I weep for your experiences but you must also understand that I too felt like an alien in America that day. As shouts of joy were raised to the sky on the riverfront in Jersey City DMVA on Sept. 11, all I could think was “these are my good neighbors.” I chose to live three blocks away from the terrorists, and I would do it again.

    Eight years later in Brooklyn 2009, my guy and I were walking to the train on a hot, humid July morning. I was wearing a grey halter dress from Banana Republic, skirt covering my knees, swing skirt, no cleavage. Out of nowhere two Muslim men came up to us, speaking only to my friend — the man. “You better give your girlfriend to us,” they said to him. “We’ll take her to the mosque and teach her how to dress.” I was utterly shocked, as was he.

    IMO opinion, rigid nationalism is wrong in all its forms — Trumpian or Islamic. Would you agree? Peace. Anne

  9. At first glance I thought this was a good idea, but maybe you should first run it by the families of the victims and first responders? Look, if you want to address runaway nationalism, then tell me why do sports teams, cops and fire fighters have to wear little American flags on their uniforms?

  10. This gives me lots to think about. I’ve always thought the lights were pretty good – peaceful, beautiful, ephemeral. A merciful departure from all the bronze sculptures of white male firefighters, eagles, flags and other jingoistic garbage out there. But your essay is an eye opener and your experiences appalling. Really feel you.

    How about we keep the lights but try for parity?
    Maybe a series of new towers of light proportional to the number of civilian Afghanis, Pakistanis, Somalis, Iraqis, Syrians, Khazaks, Uzbeks, Malaysians, Indonesians, Yemenis, Egyptians, Palestinians, Nigerians etc killed by the war on terror? If we go on the basis of 3000 lost souls per tower we could add another 330 towers or so to cover the direct deaths from the conflict. Or if we go for indirect death as well, about 1500 towers.

    What do you think guys? Judaicfrog? Mike Ver Sprill?

    1. The maga’s suffer from a massive case of cognitive dissonance. In their minds its “America good/world bad”. Never mind that the people who own most of the wealth in this country have been sending their agents out into the world for decades to pillage, plunder and destabilize the economies and social structure of other countries for their personal profit and every one of us, including the clueless magats are and have been, expendable pawns in their game. What you said is lost on them, because the bottom line is that they don’t see the victims you named as human, because they are not white and in their minds the violent actions of white men (like manufactured wars for profit, like in Iraq) are never seen as the terrorism that it is.

    2. Spare us your revisionist nonsense please.

      Your darling Ilhan Omar is part of the Majerteen tribe who was on the losing end of the Somali conflict instigated by warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid.

      If it wasn’t for your *pearl clutching* US involvement she would have ended up dead or some warlords sex slave.

      And Nigeria? They’re a peaceful country doing their thing and constantly under assault by Boko Haram Islamic militias. They specifically request US and UK advisors to defend themselves against this threat.

      Progressives seem to be the only people who wants to allow violent Islamist to overrun a country…

      1. Suggesting the author was right to be put on a watch list is ignorant and hateful, to say the least. Likewise, your Tucker Carlson-esque yelling points repeated in the above comment show your inability for actual discourse.

        While the overwhelming majority of comments here are incensed by the post, still some do recognize the point of the article, which is to see another perspective.

        I’m sure you are used to being called ignorant and racist, so perhaps think about why that is as opposed to just spewing more hate.

  11. Because it offends YOU, that should be reason enough to discontinue it?

    Don’t we have altogether TOO MUCH “cancel culture” going on?

  12. This is another fine example of why Hyperallergic should not cover art or culture. Another brilliant example of bad thinking and lazy writing to extol some hand-wringing about the feels.

    A thing can be about a thing rather than another thing somewhere else. Regardless of the bad essay here, Hyperallergic COULD have run this at any other time running up to the day and not gone for some good old fashioned click-bait hatred.

    1. Lol the author of this article is the co-founder of Hyperallergic. Probably best to read something else if you can’t handle such opinions.

      He’s not taking away from the memory of the lives of those who died, or even saying that the artwork (because yes, as he pointed out it was originally an ARTWORK) had negative intentions.

      What he is pointing out is that the towers of light, and perhaps 9/11 in general, has morphed from a tragedy to a national symbol, and that this symbol is one that represents a mass outbreak of brazen and socially-acceptable hatred and discrimination towards Muslims and middle-easternerers all across the USA (as well as anyone who could be perceived as such by prejudiced/assumptive people), as well as those who died in the Middle East in its wake (and for you who can’t muster up empathy for people from other nations, plz keep in mind that American soldiers died over there too btw).

      It’s sad, because the symbolism itself is what actually detracts from the mourning and remembrance of the lives lost on 9/11. The majority of those who died were likely not rabid nationalists, and as someone else in this ridiculous chain of comments also aptly pointed out, many were not even Americans. Anyways, even if you disagree with his words, even if you still find the towers of light beautiful, and even if you are able to view them as a simple symbols of remembrance, this article does bring up points worth thinking about. Remember empathy? Expanding one’s horizons to include other perspectives and stories is not a bad thing.

      1. To your point, Hyperallergic HAS largely resulted in me reading it less. However, critiquing a bad essay, regardless of who wrote it shouldn’t be the barometer for calling it out as garbage.

        False equivalencies and strawman arguments don’t forgive that.

        You AND the author both go to wan Progressive talking points about “nationalists” being your problem for a NYC day and a symbol of remembrance. Maybe culture and monuments just aren’t your things.

        You talk of expanding horizons and inclusive perspectives but only proscribe so at exclusion and cancellation. How sad.

      2. “What he is pointing out is that the towers of light, and perhaps 9/11 in general, has morphed from a tragedy to a national symbol”

        OH MY GOD WHAT A HORRIFIC THING!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. It sounds like putting you on a watch list was a good idea.

    PS, the half million deaths you cite is a bogus number that has never had a creditable source to back up the claims.

    Never mind that the overwhelming amount of Iraqi deaths were caused by other Iraqis who can’t seem to determine just how holy Mohammad was.

  14. “Rather than use the moment to heal and correct paths…” Yes, let’s “use the moment” of a horrible terrorist attack by a bunch of cold-blooded murdering religio-fascists “to heal and correct paths”. I guess the Japanese should have used the “moment of Hiroshima” to “heal and correct paths”. Maybe let us mourn our dead ONE DAY A YEAR.
    The war in Irag was “illegal” but no mention of the “legality” of the 9/11 attacks. Wonder why? So a memorial to almost 3000 innocent people scares you so much you can’t go outside? This sounds like something to discuss with one’s therapist. Please get the professional help you so obviously need.

  15. “Nous sommes tous americains” [Le Monde’s editorial on 13 Sept 2001]
    It was the **World** Trade Center — those 3,408 victims were from all nationalities.
    It’s 12 hours once a year.
    The 20th anniversary (11 Sept 2021) would be an appropriate date and commemorative moment to cease the formal memorializing, with clear notification well in advance.
    (This year’s initial ‘decision’ not to do the lights seemed spur-of-the-moment with little forethought or consultation and so was pratically guaranteed to invite backlash.)

    1. That whole “Let’s not expose the technicians setting it up to possible Covid-19 exposure!” rationale which was advanced was specious at best. That implies “The techs are too stupid to take precautions” or something along those lines.

  16. “Some people did something…..”

    NOT remembering the past – and in a regular, annual way such as Veterans Day – is what can cause history to be repeated. While a few might take the Tribute In Light to mean something ultra-nationalistic, for each person meaning is derived from their own perceptions and worldview. No doubt memorials to 9/11 are just as relevant to Democrats and to all those who oppose foreign military intervention, and these lights are not just one more thing supposedly supporting Trump MAGAism. Liberals can be patriotic (and for that matter, devoutly religious) too. That your personal perception – unfortunately stimulated by the bias of some in all cultures against the “other” – causes you to feel this way does not justify denying the unity and emotional connection that many others experience.

  17. Don’t frame this as a right wing activity. 911 caused the death of people. Not right or left, one religion or another, one background or another. People. Americans almost all but also people from other countries. The lights clearly symbolize more than a warped view assigning them some agenda. It is a tribute to the people, all the people, who were killed that day by Radical Islamic Fanatics. Not people who followed the Islam religion. Radical Islamic Fanatics – another force of evil in the world. And we will not forget because we will not allow evil to conquer us. Get it?

  18. Dear Mr. Vardanian,

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay. I do not agree with much of it, but I appreciate many of your arguments.

    As an unfashionable white male – raised in situational poverty, a Viet-Nam veteran, worked the night shift to put myself through university, and ignored by the Veterans’ Administration – I can assure you that the DHS and many of our national institutions have no use for me either.

    Still, the lights are nice, and a symbol of hope for all of us.

    Regards,

    Lawrence Hall

  19. Don’t know you (and now don’t want to)!
    But don’t you think I-mean think for 5 or 10 minutes– that sometimes you lefty (sorry for assumption that you’re some sort of commie)you lefty folk paint the outside world with your own ignorance, shame, and hate?

    I really do think you do because I have never known of any group -:even hard case ,hard luck stories —even prison inmates ffs -that hate like you do and that our proud of their own ignorance like a lot of left-wingers are.

    Its disgusting and pathetic. Go roll around in your own shit and give the rest of us a break! You morons are sick and beyond help!

    Dev Allred
    Englewood, CO

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