It was around the time of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that memorials stopped being remembrances of virtue, and became therapy sessions. The old statues of determined men gave way to empty spaces to represent loss. Their lessons of courage and sacrifice, were replaced by architecture as therapy session, clean geometrical shapes, reflective pools and open areas in which to feel grief at what was lost and then let go of it.
September 11 memorials have inevitably followed this same pattern, empty spaces, still pools of water groves and names tastefully inscribed in row after row. How do you tell the Ground Zero memorial from the Oklahoma City memorial? The Oklahoma City memorial has one reflecting pool and the September 11 memorial has two pools.
There is no larger meaning to these memorials and there isn’t supposed to be one. A hundred years from now they will be nothing more than giant pools surrounded by trees with nothing to say. These new memorials are not about teaching us to remember… but about helping us to forget.
To find a memorial that actually in some way addresses what happened on September 11 you would have to leave New York to go across the river to New Jersey where the much maligned Teardrop hanging between a torn tower at least represents something concrete, even if it is more grief and pain. Unlike the useless winged shapes of the Staten Island Memorial and the Pentagon Memorial, it at least acknowledges that something terrible happened here and transforms into a symbolic image.
But the abstract symbolism is still the problem. There’s an American eagle overlooking the Battery Park World War II memorial a few blocks from Ground Zero, but to find an American eagle on a memorial to the attacks you have to travel 30 miles across the river to Allendale, New Jersey.
The official September 11 memorial has sustainable architecture, but Dumont, NJ with a per capita income of 26,000 dollars managed to acquire and place one of the steel beams from the World Trade Center as their memorial.
The closest to a traditional memorial that tells you what actually happened and why it matters, as opposed to handing you a three acre handkerchief of empty spaces and waterfalls, is across the street from the monstrosity of emptiness. Just turn your back to it, cross Liberty Street and walk up to Firehouse Ten where the FDNY Memorial Wall depicts the events of the day in bronze. You may have to dodge some trucks and search for it underneath the scaffolding, but it’s there.
That’s more than can be said for the identity of the attackers which is invariably absent, except as a crescent that pops up ominously in memorial design after design, entirely by accident of course. But the memorials are not about history, they exist only to allow us to release our grief and move on by expressing life-affirming sentiments in response to this “tragedy” through community service that helps others.
From cries for revenge to serving soup to the homeless at a community kitchen– that is the intended trajectory. If it hasn’t worked as well as intended, as shown by the people who gathered to loudly celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death, instead of sighing at the cycle of violence, this is the long game.
The Pew polls show a steady growth in the number those who believe that American wrongdoing led to the attacks– from a third after the attacks, to 43 percent today. Give the enemy another decade to do its work and those numbers will be in the sixties. And their game is simple enough, remove the actual history and the images of the massacres– and replace it with an emphasis on foreign policy. Mix in news stories about Islamophobia, stir the pot a little and you’re done.
Numbers like that are why Obama was able to win and why Ron Paul is polling better than ever. When revisionist history becomes mainstream, then people will accept anything so long as it sounds good. So long as it lets them forget.
Alongside the usual Noam Chomsky 9-11 essay collections and conspiracy theory books on display on Amazon and at every bookstore; those who want purely fictional history can get pick up a copy of Amy Waldman’s The Submission about a ‘secular’ Muslim architect’s 9/11 memorial and the bigotry he experiences from the right-wing.
Or if they want to dig through the remainders bin, there’s John Updike’s next to last novel, Terrorist, an overwritten teen novel by one of America’s most famous literary authors, who shares his protagonist’s hatred for the country. “They can’t ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist,” Updike said of his book. ‘They’ being the literary critics, not the Taliban who don’t need to rely on the author of ‘Rabbit Run’ for that sort of thing.
Finally there’s ‘Forgetfulness’ by Ward Just, whose title encompasses the literary goal of the left in the story of a man who loses his wife to terrorists but avoids the “climate of revenge” and the “anger of the sort that swept all before it… the anger of the American . . . after September 11”. Instead he learns to relate to the men who murdered his wife.
Forgetfulness is the underlying theme of everything. Stop being angry. Stop being vengeful. Forget!
It is the commandment that echoes from the empty spaces and the revisionist histories, the slabs of events gouged out and dumped as landfill in Staten Island or sold off in bulk to China. The endless degradation of memory turned into a national ritual. A way to test ourselves to see how much better we feel about it– how much more we accept what happened on that day as being in the past.
Drown history in enough reflecting pools and it stops mattering. Put up enough empty benches and people will remember to forget. Tell them that they’re courageous for moving on and they’ll admire themselves for putting it all behind them. And if they won’t forget, then fill them with grief until they can’t take it anymore and willingly forget.
But by all means avoid outrage, keep messy emotions like anger out of the way. Anger is not part of the healing process, which begins with an empty bench and ends with a visit to a mosque to reconcile with your killers. It retards the process, it says, “Hey wait, we’re not done here yet!” It says, “These bastards are still walking around here plotting to kill us.” It says, “They’re building a mosque right here to look down on your reflecting pools.” And all that is most unhelpful.
Let’s take a brief detour from all the forgetting and travel up Broadway some eighty or so blocks to Central Park. There at the entrance to the park stands the Maine Monument to the hundreds of dead in the destruction of the USS Maine. There are no reflecting pools or geometrical shapes here. Instead there is a warrior, the figure of justice and the representation of the dying avenged by Columbia Triumphant, standing atop, cast in bronze out of the guns of the lost ship.
The New York Times, being what it always was, sniffed at it as a “cheap disfigurement” and the history of the war has since been revised to American jingoism and the sinking of the Maine is invariably described as an accident. If this goes on, we will no doubt live to see experts promoting the theory that it wasn’t the suicide attacks that killed thousands of Americans on September 11, but the flaws of the buildings.
Yet the Maine Memorial is still there towering above them all. In bold text so different from the carefully selected fonts of modern memorials it proclaims unashamedly; “The Freemen Who Died in the War with Spain that Others Might be Free.” And of the men who died on the Maine it declaims: “Valiant Seamen who Perished on the Maine by Fate Unwarned, in Death Unafraid.”
There are mourning figures on the memorial and there is grief and pain, but it takes place in the context of a larger struggle. The struggle against those who committed the crime and the triumph of a nation against those who would attack it.
It is inconceivable that anything so bold and proud would ever go up at Ground Zero. The culture that represented virtues through the figures of men and women has given way to one that represents abstract feelings in geometrical shapes and reflecting pools. It is why we have no new buildings like the Empire State Building, and why we won’t even be able to replace the stark geometry of the WTC with anything but smaller ‘green’ buildings which exist as a calculated show of ugliness and a rejection of human aspiration.
On the way back from Central Park, stop by the Bank of America Tower, the second tallest building in New York, the most ecologically friendly tall building in the world constructed by Obama’s BOA pals. And I defy you to spend more than a minute looking at it and then describe it. It isn’t just ugly, it’s forgettable. Your eyes move past it even as they look at it. Its peak is a deliberate mockery of symmetry and order.
Then pass by the New York Times Building, the fourth tallest building in the city, in hock to Mexican-Arab billionaire Carlos Slim, built through eminent domain land seizures with money from the Lower Manhattan Development Fund, even though it’s firmly in midtown. Then repeat the same exercise with this glorified apartment building. Again you come away with nothing, because nothing is there.
Finally after you pass by the Bloomberg Tower, even more devoid of personality, the jumbled twin towers of Time Warner Center opposite the Maine Memorial, and the rest of them all, return to the site of the former Twin Towers, and look up at the Woolworth Building, once the tallest building in the city. It hasn’t been for a long time, but yet it is. It stands as a monument to human endeavors. And that is what makes it human.
Let us consider what memorials are for and what skyscrapers are for. Are they meant to be empty spaces or are they ways of reminding us who we are?
We don’t need more holes in the ground, more places to feel empty and alone. What we need are things to aspire to. The World Trade Center’s towers were not targets of convenience, no more than the Saudi and Emirati skyscraper building spree is. Towers are symbols of achievement. They are guardians of the skyline who remind us of what we can accomplish.
The terrorists and the memorialmakers have a common purpose– to make us forget what we are capable of. To drown us in our own pain and grief, to make us drink of the Lethe waters of reflecting pools until we forget who we are. The terrorists and the memorials have done their best to break us. But it is not in grief that we must remember the day. Grief is for the foregone conclusion. But though thousands upon thousands are lost– we are not yet lost. And the war is not over.
The holes in the ground are not symbols of grief, or empty places in our hearts, they are open wounds inflicted on us by our enemies. Filling them with water will not change that, only anesthetize the pain of a fatal injury. To forget that is to sink into a mirage and die in delirium that we are recovering.
The attacks of September 11 are not a time for reflection, or personal remembrance, but a sharp reminder that we are bleeding. And we can only bleed for so long before we die. There are worse things out there than four hijacked planes used as missiles. There are actual missiles and suitcase nukes, nerve gas, toxins and whatever else can be dredged out of laboratories by Western trained researchers.
And even worse than these is the endless struggle, the constant waiting for another attack, the security measures meant to keep us safe while imprisoning us in our own security, the waiting for the day when an attack succeeds. The day we die.
September 11 is not the day we cry, it is the day we get angry. It is the day we remember who our killers were, how many have been lost, and how little has been done to bring down the ideology responsible as completely as they brought the towers down. It is the day we remember not to forget. It is the day we remember that the war has just begun and that until it ends, there can be no comfort or solace. The fight goes on.