Osama bin Laden Memorabilia Doesn't Belong in 9/11 Museum

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The Last Column of the World Trade Center is seen inside the Foundation Hall section of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On Sunday, a new artifact will reportedly arrive at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It does not come from excavations in Lower Manhattan, nor from family members of those who perished that day. It is a shirt, "brown, with a black-and-white American flag on the sleeve," according to the New York Post, which broke the news.

Why does the inclusion of a single article in the museum's collection merit several column inches, when many mundane items, sooty and crushed, are already on display in the exhibition space beneath Ground Zero? Because this brown shirt was worn by the Navy SEAL who put several bullets into the body of Osama bin Laden in the early hours of May 2, 2011. We do not know that SEAL's name, nor will we know it when his shirt goes on display. We will only know that it was worn by the man who killed the man who helped plan the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 men and women. That remarkable raid has been the subject of an excellent New Yorker article and a passable Hollywood feature. But while what happened on a September morning and on a May night a decade later are linked, they should not share the same commemorative space, or occupy the same chambers of national memory.

Bent steel, a charred eyeglass case, mangled airplane parts, ashen clothes: these tell the only story that needs to be told at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The less heroic the narrative, the more ordinary the victims, the closer we feel to them, eternal strangers though they may be. The victims were, like us, ordinary souls going about their ordinary days. We could have been them; and they, right now, could be us.

The bin Laden stuff — the brick, the brown shirt, whatever else may follow — is out of place, short-circuiting the grief that rightly haunts these galleries. The good guys won, it says triumphantly. It took a while, but we got our revenge and may now rest easy. But that's cheap closure, and it seems crass to parade the evidence of our victory in what should be a space for somber, silent thought and prayer.

When the museum first opened, there was great outcry over the gift shop, with its 9/11-related merchandise (cheese trays, hoodies, etc.). But a museum has to make a buck somehow. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has a gift shop. You can buy a Pearl Harbor beer mug. This is America. Buying stuff is what we do. Besides, the 9/11 Memorial Museum does not foist the gift shop upon you. The commercialism is conducted behind a wall; you can easily avoid it.

The Navy SEAL's brown shirt will probably end up on the main floor of the museum (the museum's spokesman, Michael Frazier, declined to comment for this story), where it will be almost impossible to avoid. The brown shirt will tell a story of its own, of the 3,520 days between 09/11/01 and 05/02/11, many of them spent looking for the tall, bearded terrorist in the caves of Peshawar and the byways of Jalalabad. And that story is worth telling. Only not here.