Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the USS New York

Below is a follow-up to an earlier post: Controlling the symbols of power: Who decides?


I’m all for recycling, and steel is one of those materials that can be used over and over again. There was around 200,000 tons of steel in the World Trade Center buildings, and much of it was shipped off to India and China to be reused. And because it is steel—an inanimate material—it doesn’t care where it came from or where it ends up. Therefore, there is never any need to record its historical lineage.

So why is it that last week with the launch of the American navy’s newest ship, the USS New York, we were informed that seven tons of steel from the WTC has been used in the boat’s construction? Why has the steel from a destroyed building been deliberately integrated into a machine of war?  And why does the USS New York have “Never Forget” engraved on its bow?

Steel from the World Trade Center is forged into the bow of the ship, which bears a crest featuring a phoenix rising from the twin towers and the words “Never Forget” (New York Times).

The inclusion of this metal is obviously not accidental, so it must have some deeper ideological purpose. But, before we delve into this more closely, let’s start by looking at the amount of steel used – all seven tons of it. What we can say is that the actual amount neither matters nor is symbolic in any way. It could have been seven ounces, seventy tons or seven thousand tons of steel from the WTC – doesn’t matter. The US government and military only had to include some steel—any steel—from the WTC in order to achieve their desired end here. And their desired end was to add a symbolic component to the ship, to give it sense of mission and history that it would not otherwise have:

The memory of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hangs heavy over the U.S.S. New York, which has been described variously as a tribute to the victims and an instrument of their vengeance.

So why do  this? Well, psychoanalysts and advertisers have long known that if you want to influence people, don’t appeal to their rationality, appeal to their emotions. Don’t allow them to think; instead, play on their feelings. And the best way to do this is through symbols! Symbols have always been important means for controlling populations and binding them to the dominant power structures. Why else do countries have national flags and why else do countries ban symbols such as swastikas and hammers-and-sickles?

In the case of the USS New York, then, symbolism engenders a greater sense of patriotism in those who serve on board – it links the crew to a critical historical moment in US history, and it links them not through any rationality, but through their emotions. Perfect for the armed forces as they don’t want their underlings thinking too much. In this example, symbolism functions as a form of control – it binds the crew to an idea that military service is as much an act of vengeance as it is of protection. And let’s face it, vengeance is a pretty powerful psychological motivator.

This symbolic inclusion of WTC steel in the USS New York also carries over its effects into the wider public sphere. Look at the following reactions to this inanimate steel:

Steel from the World Trade Center was melted down in a foundry in Amite , LA to cast the ship’s bow section. When it was poured into the molds on Sept 9, 2003, “those big rough steelworkers treated it with total reverence,” recalled Navy Capt. Kevin Wensing, who was there. “It was a spiritual moment for everybody there.”

Junior Chavers, foundry operations manager, said that when the trade center steel first arrived, he touched it with his hand and the “hair on my neck stood up. It had a big meaning to it for all of us,” he said. “They knocked us down. They can’t keep us down. We’re going to be back…

The expressions used here, such as “spiritual moment” and “big meaning”,  to describe personal reactions to the steel, demonstrate how powerfully such symbolic acts contribute to the wider militarisation of the American cultural psyche. This militarisation is a project that has been ongoing since the end of WWII and its effects are visible everywhere: the way in which military service is seen as a “good” (except for the children of politicians); the way in which “I support the troops” has become a robotic mantra used across the political spectrum regardless of the way in which the troops have behaved; the way in which the U.S. president is called the Commander-in-Chief; the way in which the military/industrial complex is threaded through the American economy.

No, there is no other liberal democracy that celebrates militarism quite like the U.S. Perhaps this is enabled by a public that bends over willingly and accepts the symbols fed to it without thinking.

Let’s now turn our attention to the imperative “Never forget” etched into the bow of the USS New York. Without the accompanying story of the WTC steel, this, of course, would be a meaningless command. “Never forget!” Interesting phrase that. Catchy.

It’s also the inverse of another “command” we’ve heard in the last couple of years and that is “Move on!”  We’ve been constantly told to “move on” from questioning the actions of the CIA, of the military and of politicians during the Bush years.

“Move on.” “Forget about it.” “Don’t keep bringing that up.”

So on the one hand, we have a country determined not to forget—“Never forget!”—about the atrocities committed against it, On the other hand, it actively wants to forget—“Move on!”—about the atrocities committed by it. You see how history is malleable? Selective? Why, when you put it like that, it’s like lying about work experience on your CV, isn’t it, only on a much bigger scale.

My point here is that those in positions of power actively engage in the production of symbols and that these symbols are  designed not only to manipulate their publics but also to reinforce a selective, self-serving, narrative of the nation.

And if you think I’m making too much of a big deal about this and the way in which symbols get used generally, then ask yourself this: Would American sailors have the same attachment to a naval vessel with seven tons of steel stripped from the prison at Abu Ghraib with the words “Never Forget” tattooed on its superstructure as a constant reminder of U.S. illegality and atrocity?

I think not.



3 Responses

  1. […] Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the USS New York « Notes from t…, on November 19th, 2009 at 3:28 pm Said: […]

  2. […] more from the original source: Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the … Tags: boat, from-the-wtc, launch, newest-ship, steel, the-boat, the-launch, uss, wtc This entry […]

  3. […] Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the USS New York  […]

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