24 May 2011

On tourists and pilgrims and worries about the country's newest sacred ground

A small, news-cycle sized, manufactured brouhaha has arisen once again in the conflict-obsessed media. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal announces: "9/11 Outreach Effort Criticized." It seems that some (perhaps only two?) 9/11 family members had raised their voices because Joe Daniels, president of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum was travelling to a major tourism conference to do his job: tell tour operators about the memorial/museum, and encourage them to bring visitors once the site is open to the public.

So controversial, right?

But some family members heard the word "tourism" and unreasonably assumed that the sacred ground of the memorial will turn into a commercial free-for-all, like Times Square. But these concerns seem baseless. There are many examples of similarly hallowed sites where the promotion of tourism has not done harm. I recently went with a friend to Gettysburg National Military Park, the final resting place for many more thousands than died on 9/11. After visits by millions of tourists, it continues to be a place of solemnity, quiet reflection, and peaceful respect. People come because they know this is hallowed ground. The place itself -- the rocks and fields and forests -- along with the many monuments raised in the memory of the fallen, are woven forever into the history of our country.

I live a couple miles from Arlington National Cemetery, another place preserved for the purpose of honoring the departed and reflecting on their great sacrifices. Like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it is the resting place for remains as well as a monument and a living lesson. People come as pilgrims, to pray, to lay a flower or plant a flag, to revel in the memory of loved ones, or shed tears in the pain of their passing. Others come, tourists, to see the Iwo Jima memorial, watch the changing of the guard by the Tomb of the Unknowns, or marvel at the monumental vistas across the Potomac. But they also learn about the battles fought by the Marines, and grasp the scale of sacrifice by our service members when they see the thousands and thousands of white headstones and crosses, stretching for too, too long on this peaceful Virginia hillside.

The same will happen at Ground Zero. People will come, as they have since September 11, 2001. To merely look and say they'd been there. To touch the sacred ground where the towers once stood and their loved ones fell. To contemplate the horrible wages of hatred. To rejoice in the love and hope that can rise like an eternal light above the darkest void.

So bring the people. Let them learn, pray, reflect and grow. And one thing is certain: many will come as tourists, but leave as pilgrims.

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