Price of Admission

How much would you pay to experience 9/11 all over again?

As far as the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is concerned, the answer is about 20 bucks.

Just as the spire was being hoisted atop the new One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan last week, the foundation in charge of the memorial across the street announced that it intended to charge a mandatory entrance fee to the adjoining September 11 Museum, scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.

Like all executive decisions relating to the worst terrorist attack in United States history, this one yielded a fair amount of outrage in the greater New York area, with protests by public officials and private citizens alike, who insist the eventual public repository of all things 9/11 ought to be free of charge.

As we debate this question, we must first alert ourselves to a small but crucial distinction.  The so-named “National September 11 Memorial and Museum” is two entities, not one.  A street-level memorial plaza has existed in various degrees of completion since September 11, 2011, and although entering requires securing a time-specific pass in advance, such tickets are (and reportedly will always be) free.

The museum, still under construction, will be located underground and will more properly resemble, well, a museum, with exhibits, artifacts and a video database of testimonials by survivors and families of victims.

This is an important point because it would seem to take care of the (presumably widely-shared) concern by Janice Testa, sister of a fallen New York firefighter, who said, “People are coming to pay their respects and for different reasons […] It shouldn’t be a place where you go and see works of art.  It should be more like a memorial place like a church that there’s no entry fee.”

In point of fact, the memorial plaza seems to serve precisely that purpose, precisely on Testa’s terms.  Those who wish to reflect on the meaning of 9/11 in the footprints of the Twin Towers can do so.  Problem solved.

The question that remains is whether this separate museum, which approaches the September 11, 2001, attacks in a more narrative fashion, ought to be an effectively private enterprise, or whether it should rather be regarded as belonging to the American people, and be funded accordingly.

Surely the most vibrant precedent for the latter is the Smithsonian, a web of more than two dozen museums and research centers in Washington, D.C., which houses many of America’s greatest national treasures and, for that reason, is funded by the federal government (along with various private contributors) and can be explored by the public for free.

We value the Smithsonian so highly, as a piece of our national identity, that the notion of charging admission seems almost profane.

Does America’s official 9/11 museum qualify for such a standing?

Joe Lhota, New York’s former MTA chairman and a current candidate for mayor, thinks it does, saying, “It’s an outrage that our federal government is abdicating its duty to memorialize those lost in our nation’s greatest tragedy.”

Does the government have such a duty?  If so, does it extend to memorializing every deadly attack on U.S. soil, or just the worst of the worst?  The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is government-funded and free of charge, so perhaps Lhota is on to something.

Against these lofty ideals, the case for an admission fee at the September 11 Museum is largely an economic one:  Expected annual operating costs simply could not be covered by the funds Congress is currently offering or by private contributions alone.

This is not to say that a principled argument for charging a fee does not exist.

For starters:  If we agree that 9/11 was an assault on the American way of life, and that capitalism is an integral and essential component thereof, why shouldn’t a museum commemorating our survival of such an attack operate in a capitalistic way?

If we insist, as we do, on the adage that “freedom is not free,” then surely an institution celebrating freedom shouldn’t be free, either.  Or are we not prepared to put our money where our mouths are?

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