Oklahoma City and 9/11

Edward Linenthal’s The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory is a cultural analysis of the bombing of Oklahoma City and the ways in which survivors, victims’ families, the community, and nation as a whole dealt with the aftermath and details the memorialization process. Linenthal argues that the bombing “sparked a crisis of American identity in which much was at stake. Discussion about what it ‘meant’ had little to do with Oklahoma City and everything to do with American worlds seemingly threatened by the bombing. It would continue to resonate richly and contentiously in the culture.” (Linenthal 27) Linenthal notes that the story of Oklahoma City is told through three different narratives. The progressive narrative seeks to transform the image of Oklahoma City and spur a revitalization of the city through acts of civic reconstruction. The redemptive narrative springs from religious communities and their struggle to use sacred resources to respond to the crisis, and generally includes affirmations of the human spirit. The toxic narrative is one in which the bombing is characterized as unfinished; this narrative focuses on the bombing itself and the way the bombing impacted minds and bodies of those who witnessed it first-or second-hand. (Linenthal 41-43)

Linenthal describes the ways in which the bombing was the impetus for the formation of new social relationships and groups, how Americans as a nation coped by using their grief to transcend differences that divide the county, and the debate over what should be done with the Murrah building. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is the final chapter that discusses the creation of the Oklahoma City Memorial. The process of memorialization that occurred at Oklahoma City is “symbolic in the history of public memorialization” because it included over three hundred people and was consciously designed to be therapeutic in nature. This particular memorial process “served as an ingeniously designed model of community consensus building.” (Linenthal 229-230)

In Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Marita Sturken picks up where The Unfinished Bombing left off, and her work draws on and adds to Linenthal’s work. Tourists of History “explores the complex intersection of cultural memory, tourism, consumerism, paranoia, security, and kitsch that has defined American culture over the past two decades and the ways that these cultural practices are related to the deep investment in the concept of innocence.” (Sturken 4) She defines the term “tourists of history” as a “particular mode through which the American public is encouraged to experience itself as the subject of history through consumerism, media images, souvenirs, popular culture, and museum and architectural reenactments, a form of tourism that has as its goal a cathartic ‘experience’ of history.” (Sturken 4) Sturken’s argues “American culture’s relationship to memory and mourning can be defined as a tourism of history.” (Sturken 12) Tourists of History demonstrates how Americans use cultures of consumerism and kitsch as a means to provide feelings of comfort and safety after traumatic experiences, which helps to restore their sense of innocence. This sense of innocence is fundamentally misleading and displaces any sense of blame away from those same Americans seeking comfort.

Sturken supports her argument by laying out her theoretical framework in a fascinating first chapter that juxtaposes the culture of consumerism in America with notions of comfort, innocence, and security. She engages well with Linenthal’s work in the second and third chapters, and teases out the most significant portions of his scholarship and weaves them seamlessly into her own argument. According to Sturken, the progressive narrative is the narrative that ultimately triumphed in Oklahoma City, as the community was able to come together successfully to create a moving, therapeutic monument to the victims in a relatively short period of time. In the third chapter, Sturken discusses the execution of Timothy McVeigh and how it contributed to an overlapping spectacle of death and grief.

In the final two chapters, she comparatively analyzes the events of 9/11 to those of Oklahoma City. The fifth chapter discusses the efforts to rebuild lower Manhattan and the efforts to create a 9/11 memorial. Unlike Oklahoma City, there was not a broad consensus on the best way to construct a memorial. The progressive narrative did not triumph in Manhattan the way it did in Oklahoma City. The debates over the best way to memorialize the victims of 9/11, and to a lesser extent, the debates over the Oklahoma City Memorial, are case studies in the idea that memorialization is not about the past but about the present.

Similar to Linenthal’s assertion in The Unfinished Bombing, Sturken notes that Ground Zero became a site of cultural memory production that created narratives of redemption and innocence. Sturken’s work adds the narrative of innocence to Linenthal’s preexisting three narratives. It would be interesting to examine the narratives that com out of other traumatic events in recent American history, such as the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings, for example. Would the narratives that arose from those events be comparable to Sturken’s and Linenthal’s? How would they differ, since Oklahoma City and 9/11 were perpetrated by domestic and international terrorists?

The impact Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on memorialization efforts in America is readily evident in both The Unfinished Bombing and Tourists of History. The Oklahoma City and 9/11 memorial committees were concerned with identifying and naming each and every victim, and ensuring they would be recognized and remembered. As a result, the Oklahoma City Memorial and 9/11 Memorial have the names of all victims integrated into their memorial designs. At Oklahoma City, the names of the victims were carved into empty chairs, which were meant to embody the presence of absence. At the 9/11 memorial, the names of those who died at the WTC (both in the 2001 and 1993 attacks), the Pentagon, and on flight 93 are inscribed into the marble columns that form the beginning of waterfalls placed in the footprints of the towers. In addition, almost immediately after the disaster, visitors came to both sites to leave trinkets and objects, and at Oklahoma City they kept a part of the chain-link fence as a part of the memorial. Visitors to both memorials leave objects at the site, reminiscent of what visitors started and continue to do at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The shift in the American monumental landscape towards that of monuments honoring victims–whether it be victims of domestic or international terrorism, or a largely unpopular war–has been cemented in American culture through these three significant memorials.

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