Why the 9/11 Museum Gift Shop Offends Us

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Photo: Courtesy of National September 11 Memorial Museum

On Sunday, the New York Post reported outrage at the National September 11 Memorial Museum for opening a gift shop on the premises. “To me, it’s the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died,” one woman told the paper. Across the internet, the sentiment was echoed: It’s vulgar to charge money for 9/11 memorial trinkets.

That’s an understandable reaction, especially among survivors and victims’ families. But there’s still something a bit irrational here: No one’s expressing any outrage over the fact that the museum charges for admission, after all, and revenue from tickets and mugs (and baseball caps and hoodies) goes to the same source: the museum itself.

There’s a rich history of this sort of anger toward those who profit (or are seen as profiting) from others’ pain. In 2011, Jay Z’s Rocawear clothing company co-opted the Occupy movement by selling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts. In 2012, merchants offered holiday ornaments, throw pillows, and dog sweaters commemorating Hurricane Sandy. And last year the Boston Marathon bombing received the T-shirt treatment. In each case, there was broad outcry, a shared sense that something sacred was being trampled.

It all raises a question: Why, in a hypercapitalistic age in which you can literally sell your personal data to a company for marketing purposes, are we so upset when mementos of tragedy enter the marketplace?

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has offered a useful vocabulary for understanding these issues. He distinguishes between three kinds of exchanges. First are routine trade-offs, in which one swaps one “secular” value or entity for another — by, say, paying money (the most secular good we have) for an iPad or some other commodity. Second are tragic trade-offs, in which “sacred” or irreplaceable entities are weighed against each other — national security or citizen privacy? Sophie’s older child or her younger one? Then you have taboo trade-offs, in which a secular value is paired with a sacred one. People tend to throw prostitution into this category, which is why it incites such fierce debate.

What people see in the 9/11 gift shop is a taboo trade-off. On one side of the exchange is cash, and on the other is not just a mug or a hoodie but something much larger. These items stand in for all the suffering they commemorate. The equation is quite simple: “They’re making money off my dead son,” one man told the Washington Post. Some people have a problem not with the merch per se — 9/11 T-shirts were not invented over the weekend — but with the location of their sale. I suspect they see a leveraging of museum visitors’ mourning into commercial gain.

We find taboo trade-offs offensive because secular goods are fungible and sacred ones are not. A hundred dollar bill or a new stereo or bike can be reduced to a single dollar figure, and can be traded for each other based on these values. But we consider certain qualities of life too rich and unique to undergo such valuation without significant loss. How do you put a price on your child’s life? Even to suggest such a thing—that perhaps your son’s bundle of charms and qualms and loves and drives could be squashed into one dollar figure — outrages us. By putting something on sale, “money becomes the most frightful leveler,” the German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in 1903. “It hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability.”

Organizations that are expected to honor the sacred can get into trouble when they rely on commercial practices. In a recent study, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Janet Schwartz of Tulane University, and Tetlock found that people were less likely to attend a church that used marketing tactics such as advertising and hiring a celebrity endorser than one that marketed by offering workshops or creating an online forum.

Another experiment by the researchers showed that even corporations can find themselves held to a higher standard when people see their services as priceless: Subjects felt that a pharmaceutical company should offer special pricing plans on a life-saving drug to people in need, rather than try to profit off of them. (Subjects didn’t feel the same about a cosmetic cream.) We likely see the 9/11 museum as we do a church with a communal function — President Obama called the memorial a “sacred place” — or at least as we do a pharmaceutical company offering a product for the benefit of humankind.

What may seem odd about the outrage at the 9/11 museum is that the gift shop does not actually present a taboo trade-off. Proceeds directly benefit the museum, as a notice indicates. Sure, tragedy is translated into money, but that money is translated right back into another sacred value, commemoration of the tragedy. (The lack of anger about tickets costing money is telling — when money is exchanged for a ticket, there's an intuitive understanding about where the funds are going that somehow gets short-circuited in the realm of merchandise.) That’s enough to satisfy me, and many others. Indeed, McGraw and colleagues found that similar logic reduced subjects’ concerns about taboo trade-offs. In one experiment, people were told a pharmaceutical company lost $50 million and needed to raise prices on a cholesterol drug. They were offended when the company’s stated justification was to “ensure revenues and profits for a healthy bottom line,” but not when it was to “continue researching and developing drugs that benefit everyone.” The profit was no longer tainted by profiteering. 

As for those unassuaged by such logic, we can’t expect mourning to follow reason. When you’ve lost a loved one, the mere whiff of commodification might be enough to cause even more pain: What once was your son is now a mere keychain. Of course, we should hear and respect such concerns. But we should also respect the practicalities of running a museum as important as this one. Even the sacred needs to touch reality sometimes.