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The Ambiguities and Insecurities of Ground Zero Space
How Dust and Shrines Threatened the Resecuritization of New York
This chapter analyzes the constellation of events, discourses, spaces, and objects that became a part of the securitization of memorial spaces at Ground Zero during the immediate aftermath of the 9/11/01 attacks (2001–3). Here we extend the arguments that we previously made about material ontologies by highlighting how some acts of outright removals of materials became entangled in local and national debates about the cleanup that was needed before designers and engineers could go to work filling the voids left by the terrorist attacks.
This part of Manhattan was initially characterized as a catastrophe zone that resembled some of the infrastructural damage caused by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, but over time theorists might argue that these hallowed grounds were cleansed and "purified" to help set up spaces for commemoration and public edification. Along the way, a growing number of stakeholders hoped that it would also become a highly advanced security apparatus.
As noted in the introduction, we are extending the work of advocates of critical participatory rhetoric by basing some portions of the book on fieldwork, but we are supplementing this with critical rhetorical and critical studies analyses of the texts that circulated about dust and symbolic cleanup in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks.
With this structure in mind, we invite readers to travel with us back in time, so that they can get a sense of the textured feelings of those who helped coproduce what Michael Rothberg has called the multidirectional and competitive memories that appear in some key rhetorical contexts. As New Yorkers cleared away debris among the ruins, they and other Americans contemplated just how they wanted to set in place the infrastructures that might memorialize the 9/11 tragedies.
While previous researchers often focus on the words and deeds of key architects or mayors or major funders of rebuilding projects, a more "critically" oriented, perspectival approach asks readers to consider how diverse audiences between 2001 and 2003 also play key roles in the production of discursive knowledges as they refracted and reflected nationalistic anxieties about terrorism.
Close textual, visual, and object-oriented analyses — that draw from the work of Latour, Foucault, and others — would ask critics of memorials or related spaces and places to make sure that they do not overlook the role that seemingly mundane objects play in the symbolic formation of key state apparatus. By studying how ordinary citizens, journalists, and others helped with the imbrication of objects such as dust, temporary memorials, and other quotidian objects, critical scholars can illustrate how the "politics of things" (Latour) helps with securitization efforts.
As we explain in more detail below, this was no easy argumentative task, especially between 2001 and 2003, because many were writing as if they were traumatized by the notion that this would not be the last time that terrorists might attack this part of Manhattan, a vibrant economic hub of the nation. What if many other American cities suffered similar fates?
Uncertainty and worries about al Qaeda helped launch everything from the invasion of Afghanistan to the search for bin Laden in Tora Bora. Entirely new organizations, such as Homeland Security, were formed to help prepare the nation for what some critical security scholars called America's "new" way of war. This ushered in an entire generation eager to "take the gloves off" and face the challenges of "hybrid" or unconventional warfare to the point where some pundits were alleged to have characterized the Geneva Convention as some "quaint" paper tigers that should not restrain the hands of aggressive counterterrorist fighters.
Some viewed these worries about terrorism or counterterrorism as "political" or "military" issues that had little to do with the familial commemoration of the dead. Those who argued for discursive or material securitization of the areas around Ground Zero during this early period of memorialization were living at a time that was rife with chaos, confusion, and grief.
All of this collective trauma may help explain why it has taken so long for investigative journalists, academics, and others to focus on the resecuritization facets of post-9/11 planning. For some, the very notion that American publics across the nation might accept the securitization of these hallowed grounds was problematic, in that it could be characterized as an instrumental usage, if not weaponization, of public mourning spaces. For others, the worries about terrorism and New York targeting were palpable and real existential threats that required fewer debates and more counterterrorist actions.
Long before the September 11 Memorial and Memorial Museum finally opened, various stakeholders were trying to influence how we thought about the debris and the material rebuilding after the loss of the Twin Towers. From a Latourian standpoint, this debate involved disputation over the proper reassembly of objects for the reterritorialization of Ground Zero.
The national traumas and anxieties that led to massive changes in airport security and massive growth of other governmental apparatuses have been discussed elsewhere, but less studied are the ways that debates between 2001 and 2003 about Ground Zero were filled with stories about what needed to be included or removed in the name of counterterrorism.
For our purposes, these stories of removal included narratives about public memorialization, makeshift shrines, and altars that were erected by local publics. Eventually the Department of Recreation and Public Works had to intervene and remove some of these structures.
Why were dust and makeshift memorials deemed dangerous by authorities? Is it possible that even before the selection of famous architects, there were ordinary citizens who crafted their own texts and visualities that indicated what needed to be done in the aftermath of 9/11? Is it also possible that between 2001 and 2003 publics were witnessing the Latourian merger of realpolitik and dingpolitik as vernacular rhetorics produced by social agents who reacted to all of these removal efforts?
In some cases, shrines were assembled with nonthreatening objects like ribbons and other mementos. This reaction to the disaster is why Erika Dross, who also found heuristic value in Latourian approaches to objects, explained that in the aftermath of 9/11, written notes, condolence cards, poems, and teddy bears became "things" that were "central to contemporary recollections of loss and social performance of grief." These objects, she explained, may have served the needs of citizens because they were "inexpensive and easily available" in ways that resonated with "literalist beliefs in the symbolic and emotional power of material culture."
In The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials, Professor Doss was focusing most of her attention on theory building that might explain the evocative power of these "temporary memorials," but we extend some of these insights and argue that these material logics and ontologies were being produced long after the cleanup of the temporary memorials.
Moreover, this was also a time when the symbolic and material cleanup of Lower Manhattan became so complicated that it forced the hand of governmental officials, who had to think ahead and plan for what needed to be put in place after the removals. As we explain in more detail below, all of this talk of removal and infrastructural change soon became entangled in conversations about preventing the next potential 9/11 attack.
As is the case with many situations that involve hostile or threatening objects — what W. J. T. Mitchell would call taboo or iconoclast objects — the choice of how to frame these dangers and how to respond to perceived threats involved both things and human relationships. In the introduction, we alluded to the material significance of dust in 9/11 commemoration, and it would be during this early period that dust, and the rhetorics about dust, had everything to do with securitization of Ground Zero and surrounding areas.
In many ways Latour was ahead of his time, because all of his theorizing about networks and agentic objects and so forth would soon be echoed by post-9/11 commentaries on chaos theory, "network-centric" terrorism, and algorithmic counterterrorist efforts. Yet, for the local communities who lived in and around Lower Manhattan, it was the symbolic nature of all of this dust and debris that worried those who were familiar with urban ecologies.
Dust, for instance, was materially networked with pulverized body parts, toxic chemicals, and debris from the terrorist attacks. Not only that, but dust was the material manifestation of that which remained after al Qaeda terrorists hijacked two American Airlines aircrafts to topple two of America's most iconic objects. Dust, therefore, was not, nor was it ever, just dust; for many New Yorkers and other witnesses to this tragedy, it was always mixed with, and composed of, something else. Dust, in other words, became part of complex material-semiotic assemblages as an early dingpolitik that was associated with these dark times. This importance of dust is especially true considering that it had various elemental, structural, and affective dimensions that could be referenced in complex American security assemblages.
The contents of dust thus triggered widespread debates about to whom, or what organization, the dust belonged, and how it should be treated, especially once an October 21, 2001, forensic analysis revealed that the "dust" removed from Ground Zero and placed in the Fresh Kills Landfill included 4,257 "body parts." What was in the dust, what needed to be done about it, and who was liable for its hazardous health effects post-cleanup (or the mishandling of body parts) were just some of the questions that these social agents were asking during these early days.
While many governmental elites worried about public health and counterterrorist dangers, and while others worked at removing dust's "dangerous" materiality, local residents were covering its spaces with makeshift shrines and memorials. These locals were interested in commemorating the dead, and on a more practical level, they wanted to help locate the "missing." Debates about human remains only complicated these matters.
Although these nonofficial acts of spontaneous performativity created a sense of shared solidarity through struggle, loss, and grief, as time passed, the efforts of the locals drew the ire of those who were more interested in removal. The countless individual and communal memorials were deemed disorderly by certain memorial planners and architects because they threatened the futuristic order of Ground Zero and the coherence and stability of more security-oriented stories about 9/11.
Thus, by 2003, the State Department of Parks and Recreation removed these objects of controversy to once again purify New York space and thus regain a sense of spatial control and make way for a securitized national memorial. What was needed, after all, was a functional space, one that was capable of commemorating the lives lost on 9/11/01 but also ensuring the prevention of another attack. Americans, after all, may have wanted to sweep away the horrors of past attacks as they swept up the debris.
At different times, these contested objects served as materialistic reminders of lingering insecurities that had to be removed. Some locals were not impressed when tanks, warbirds, barricades, and the National Guard turned out to militarize Ground Zero.
While some residents complained about the over-the-top presence of these securitized objects, many Americans realized that they were witnessing a necessitous transition from disaster zone to a security complex that could teach others about how to deter future terrorist attacks.
How was this goal achieved between 2001 and 2003? What we provide in this chapter is an analysis of the objects that supposedly threatened the resecuritization of New York, as we also pay attention to the incremental placement of militaristic objects that effectively replaced the debris and some commemorative objects.
To help support the assertions that we are making about removal of makeshift memorials and the symbolic importance of cleanup of dust and debris, we begin with a discussion of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the senses of confusion, anger, frustration, and vengeance that swept the nation in the wake of the terrorist attacks. We contend that this groundswell of emotions made for a potent elixir as New Yorkers joined those calling for intervention in Afghanistan and other acts of retribution. We then analyze the material significance of dust as an object that threatened the resecuritization of Lower Manhattan spaces. In that portion of the chapter we comment on the coproduction of many argumentative assemblages that involved responding to familial, institutional, health, or environmental concerns. Next, we write about the dissident efforts of local communities who did their best to preserve the temporary memorials that helped them cope with post-9/11 traumas.
Eventually institutional authorities used their coercive power as they removed the personal shrines, altars, and vigils in 2003 that often had little to do with the waging of war. We would even go so far as to argue that for a time, Ground Zero became a public, institutionally securitized space of nationalist counterinsurgency memory that involved acts of dispossession. In other words, the seizure or collection of select objects, memorials, and shrines turned personal grief into public commemoration, and this transition happened in ways that supported the agendas of those who wished to militarize space for the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
If we are right, then by the time architects, politicians, and memorial decision makers began disputing the realpolitik of the National September 11 Memorial and Memorial Museum (chapters 2 and 3), the securitization of memorial space in and around Ground Zero had already begun. Worries about the removal of temporary memorials were replaced by celebration-planning efforts as publics looked forward to the building of the more permanent national 9/11 memorial.
By 2003 it would have been unthinkable not to have these spaces and places configured in ways that did not help with the prevention of the next 9/11.
Ground Zero Topophobia and the Need to Resecuritize Space
The September 11 terrorist attacks created not just a perceived military necessity but a public demand for the securitization of space due to the inexplicable feelings of insecurity and absence that were left behind after the attacks. The famous 9/11 Commission Report, for example, was a text filled with imaginative arguments about failed security events and ignored warnings. In its wake, various security assemblages — the Office of Public Security, the Office of Homeland Security, and the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services — formulated and worked alongside the NYPD to respond to national insecurities. They were supposed to manage high-technology security objects worth tens of millions of dollars and "designed to thwart threats potentially more daunting than another attack on a downtown skyscraper."
Consider just a few of the sundry security initiatives that have been implemented since 9/11: the creation of the Urban Area Security Initiative to increase counterterrorism capabilities with resources to protect high-risk New York neighborhoods; preparations made against possible cyanide attacks on subways; the Lower and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiative, which has allowed for the extreme proliferation of security cameras and license plate readers in "critical areas" of lower and midtown Manhattan; and the Joint Task Force Empire Shield, which is a standing body of military forces from the Army National Guard, the Air National Guard, and the New York Naval Militia at transportation facilities in New York City.
All of this institutionalization of select security concerns did not go unnoticed. In an interview with the New York Post, David Cohen — a former CIA official who became the deputy commissioner of intelligence for the NYPD after 9/11 — said that striking New York City "is marbled into [terrorists'] thought process. ... If you want to get into the major leagues in the terrorism business, you come here." Commenting on Ground Zero security specifically, police commissioner Raymond Kelly said that post-9/11 securities have not yet revealed any "immediate threats against Ground Zero, but we are much concerned about that location as projects there go forward."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Securitization of Memorial Space"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction: Remembering 9/11 (In)Securities and the Impetus for National Commemoration at Ground Zero 1. The Ambiguities and Insecurities of Ground Zero Space: How Dust and Shrines Threatened the Resecuritization of New York 2. Rebuilding Ground Zero: Risky Objects and the Force of Security, 2002–2005 3. Policing Memory with Moral Authority: The Idealistic Visions of Family Members of the Deceased, 2004–2014 4. Melancholic Commemoration and “Policing” at the National September 11 Memorial, 2011–2014 5. Holocaust Memories and Counterterrorist Practices at Ground Zero Conclusion: How the National September 11 Memorial and Memorial Museum Functions as a Political Platform for Legitimating Future U.S. Interventionism Source Acknowledgments Notes Bibliography Index