Wanted: selfie sensitivity

More than a month has passed, and I still can't stop thinking about the photo that turned up in my Instagram feed just days before the 9/11 anniversary: A young woman about my age, with her mother, grinning for a selfie in front of the National September 11th Memorial in New York City.

The caption said that they were doing "touristy New York things." But on that weekend before the anniversary, there no doubt were people near the happy selfie-takers, grieving over the memory of loved ones lost 16 years ago.


In the age of information and technology, are we becoming so saturated and overstimulated that we're numb to what counts for basic decency? The problem seems especially acute for young people who can't recall a time when the world wasn't at their fingertips. You can listen to the latest pop song while reading an article on the Catalan Independence movement and downloading a movie just released in theaters, because who even goes to the movies anymore?

With all of this overstimulation, it seems as if millennials are becoming desensitized to real tragedy. Whether it's at the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, my generation apparently has no problem smiling for selfies in front of monuments commemorating terrible events and posting these appalling images on social media to send to their friends back home.


To take a cheerful selfie for your Facebook and Instagram feeds in a place where undeniable disaster happened is unforgivable. The memorial recreates the footprints of the crumbled World Trade Center towers. Water rushes into the indentations, and the sides display the names of the victims. More than 2,700 people died right in that exact spot.

Although I was only 4 years old in 2001, growing up near New York City, I remember watching the planes hit each tower on the TV as my mom stood still, mouth agape. But people around the world had the same experience of watching that terrible day. It's difficult to pardon tourists for being insensitive just because they're not New Yorkers who didn't have friends or family who might have been among those who perished. Although our country banded together during that time, New Yorkers banded closer, so my heart goes out to the relatives of the victims when this time of year comes around.

If you have ever been to Washington, D.C., then you have probably taken a long walk through the National Mall, where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands. This memorial is skillfully designed with long gabbro walls etched with the names of fallen servicemen. These walls happen to be reflective, making the perfect mirror-like photo op for selfie-taking tourists. Their smiling faces blur the names on the memorial.

A similar phenomenon is also seen at Holocaust memorials across the world, but especially at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The memorial showcases 2,711 gray concrete slabs right in the middle of the city. Because of the design, visitors stand on the slabs, leap across them, and do yoga against them. Innumerable selfies testify to how much fun you can have on the Holocaust slabs.

Although the memorial isn't on a site of an extermination camp, it is a powerful reminder — or ought to be — of the 6 million Jews, among others, who were killed by the Germans during the Holocaust. Although this memorial does not list names, some say that the concrete is reminiscent of a Jewish cemetery because of the lack of color. The memorial's architect, Peter Eisenman, has said that the slabs are meant to evoke organized disorder free of human reason. Instead, we get the disorder of young people cavorting with their smartphones.This clueless insensitivity has been noticed by Israeli artist, Shahak Shapira, who has created an online project called "Yolocaust" (for those who don't text: "Yolo" = you only live once). The project displays the selfies that he's seen online from the Berlin memorial, but instead of showing the slabs as the backdrop, he has substituted ghastly images from Nazi concentration camps.

Being a Jew with relatives who were killed during the Holocaust, I'm grateful that Mr. Shapira has found a way to send a message to these selfie-takers in Berlin, and to anyone who would turn a place meant for somber reflection into their own photo studio: Respect the victims of evil — they also only lived once.

Hayley Bronner is a student at Johns Hopkins University; her email is