In the 1989 Woody Allen movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Alan Alda plays a full-of-himself television producer who comes up with the following nugget: Comedy is “tragedy plus time.”
The character Alda plays is wholly unlikable, but he makes a valid point – we can crack jokes about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination over a century after the fact (“How did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”), but trying to provoke laughs from recent catastrophes is a much harder climb. Even a half-century later, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wants to craft some knee-slappers out of what transpired in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The same notion seems to extend to commerce surrounding national tragedies, as we’ve seen by the controversy over the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York housing a gift shop that’s peddling such typical wares as hoodies and mugs. The mother of one victim of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center described it as “the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died.” On social media and other online soapboxes, the quick-to-be-outraged weighed in with characteristic vituperation and apoplexy.
Of course, if the gift shop was hawking, say, snow globes depicting the twin towers with an airplane hurtling toward them, then the elevated blood pressure would be appropriate and justified. However, the store is selling no such thing. Plus, as an article on the Think Progress website pointed out, many museums built around commemorating some of the most horrific events of the last century, such as the United States Holocaust and Memorial Museum, the National World War II Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, have gift shops attached that have generated nary a peep of protest.
And what about the sinking of the Titanic? It’s been thrust into the marketplace in just about every imaginable permutation, from multiple feature films and documentaries to books, traveling exhibits and merchandise like bottle openers, puzzles, coin sets, a pewter money clip (a “Father’s Day idea” according to one site), and, yes, a water globe with “Polar the Titanic Bear.” No one gets huffy, yet 1,500 people did perish when the Titanic slid into the Atlantic.
This summer, thousands of Civil War re-enactors will venture to the sites where key battles took place, ready to take on the roles of enlisted men, colonels and generals and pretend they are participating in organized slaughter. Plenty of spectators will be on hand. Yet, it’s such a readily accepted practice – and the Civil War did happen 150 years ago, well outside the memory of anyone now alive – that it raises the ire of exactly no one, despite the war’s colossal toll.
The motives for buying goods at a museum gift shop are, of course, many and varied. Some would like a souvenir to help recall the experience, others would like to advertise they were there and, if they’re purchasing a book, would like to gain greater insight into the museum’s collections or theme. If the tchotchkes are tasteful, then what’s the problem? Plus, all the cash they generate goes directly into the operation of the museum, which isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop, nickel-and-dime enterprise.
The reaction to this whole kerfuffle demonstrates how, almost 13 years later, feelings are still raw over 9/11. And the chances anyone alive on that day will ever want to laugh about it are very small. But taking home a keepsake, at this stage, will harm no one.