by Jonathan Wallace

May 25, 2002

Year Zero is a series of essays combining my personal account of September 11 and its aftermath with reflections on ethical, legal, political, religious and other implications. The essays are all collected here. You can also subscribe to the Year Zero mailing list here.

We had heard that there was a nightly memorial to the victims on the Promenade, so one evening a few days after September 11 my wife and I took a walk out to see.

The Promenade, in case you're not familiar with it, is an elegant walkway overlooking the East River from Brooklyn Heights. Many of the shots of the Manhattan skyline you see in movies and on television are taken from there. For thirty years, the World Trade Center had dominated the view from the Promenade as from everywhere else around the city. Now they were gone, and the Promenade was a natural place for people to gather to share their grief.

On September 11, many New Yorkers went to the Promenade to watch the towers in flames. I regretted that, after fleeing Manhattan that morning, I went home to watch the disaster on television instead of going to the Promenade. I think I wanted the information and not the immediacy; I needed to be indoors for a while and have someone else tell me what was happening.

That night, we found that the cast iron grill-work fence along the entire Promenade had become a setting for flowers, flags, ribbons, posters with sad or patriotic messages, pictures of the missing and lost, and a large photograph of the Manhattan skyline before September 11, which had been laminated and affixed so securely to the railing that it is still there nearly eight months later. (For photographs of the scene that week on the Promenade, see George Marengo's Artlab page.)

At the entrance from Montague Street, a crowd had gathered, as it did every night for weeks, to light candles and sing together. A concave section of the fence by the entrance had become a natural harbor for the candles, mostly the type that come in little jars. Many of the people there were holding candles in their cupped hands. They were singing hymns, of which the only one I recognized was Amazing Grace. Many of the singers were remarkably talented; I remember a young black man with a deep, nuanced baritone voice, flying and resting above the mass of other voices.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, Who called me here below,
Shall be forever mine.

While behind all of us, across the river, thick dark smoke roiled up from Ground Zero as it would continue to do for weeks.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow. I think of Prospero's speech in The Tempest:

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

While the missing "were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air..."

Standing amidst singers on the Promenade who believed the words they sang, I was glad of the warmth of their company, though I could not believe like them. Warmth and mutual consolation was the purpose of the exercise.

It was remarkable that they met not in anger but in grief. It was nothing like the rageful Middle Eastern funerals and memorials we see on television--huge posters of the dead in defiant postures, men brandishing semiautomatic weapons and vowing to avenge their dead. The orderly crowd on the Promenade was mourning exactly as if we had lost our folk to a natural disaster and not to murder.

Later, for more than a month, we had the temporary memorial, the twin beams of light shining up from Ground Zero. My wife and I walked out again to the Promenade to see these. The idea had apparently emerged from the collective unconscious, recommended simultaneously by many people. The beams succeeded as an abstract image around which to organize our thoughts: sadness and regret, loss and fear, and a longing for the world as we had it before September 11.

Given the speed with which impromptu memorials were created all over the city, it is not surprising that there has been discussion almost from the first day about the form a more permanent one should take. There are three principal questions about any memorial, and they are already the subject of dispute among the survivors (who are considered to have a right to have first crack at answering them): 1. When? 2. How large? and 3. Abstract or representational?

In order to answer any of these questions, you must first consider the purpose a memorial is intended to serve. An article on the Mothers Against Drunk Driving site entitled Sacred Space, considering the related phenomenon of roadside memorials to victims of automobile crashes, says that the location

also become a place where loved ones feel close to those who have been killed. Similar in a way to a cemetery, it may become a place where loved ones can "communicate" with the deceased either by spending time at the site or by leaving special momentos. Objects of a religious nature - crosses, candles, religious jewelry, and angels - are common at memorial sites. But sites may also contain artifacts that have meaning only to the persons who left them and presumably, the person who was killed. Sports memorabilia, notes and letters, stuffed animals, clothing, and other items are often found.

A "Leaders' Seminar" held last summer by the Rwanda National Unity and Reconciliation Commission considered the creation of memorials to the victims of that country's recent genocide against the Tutsi tribe and those who sheltered them. The group was very concerned that memorials, rather than comforting people, can do them harm:

The best approach to developing such memorials is to engage people from all sectors of the population in dialogue about how they feel about memorials, what they need, how they are affected, as well as considering how ceremonies surrounding memories may combine grieving about loss and pain while also pointing to a more hopeful, better future. Otherwise, the annual commemoration and other memorials risk re-opening wounds and deepening the division between groups...

The group concluded that it should "consider ways to create memorials and ceremonies that don't retraumatize people".

To put the memorials in context, I pulled several books from the shelf that I read long ago.

First Everything in its Path, Kai T. Erikson's study of the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972, which destroyed an Appalachian community. The aftermath Erikson described was reminiscent of some of the things we have been experiencing since 9/11: the feeling that the world doesn't make sense any more, that it is not safe, that a structure that we took for granted has been lost for ever. Erikson cites studies that the majority of people recover very quickly after a disaster, so long as there is a community remaining outside the disaster, of which they still form a part. In Buffalo Creek, this did not exist; the rescue workers, Erikson says, were from elsewhere, more an occupying army than a manifestation of the concern of a local community. "It is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides a context for intimacy, the community that represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions."

I had first learned something about communities--about a particular important form of them, the nation-state--from Ernst Renan's 1882 essay, "What is a Nation?" He argued that nations are based not on race, religion, geography, or language, but on the fact that the people in them, for whatever reason, imagine themselves to be connected to one another. To accomplish this, they must both remember and forget:

For the essence of a nation is that all of the individuals have many things in common, but also that they have all forgotten many other things. No French citizen knows if he is Burgundian, Alain, Taifale, or Visigoth; every French citizen must have forgotten the Saint-Barthelemy, the 13th-century massacres in the Midi.

From here it was an easy step to Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, and to a chapter in which he speaks of memorials to Unknown Soldiers:

No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers. The public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments precisely because they are either deliberately empty or no-one knows who lies inside them, has no true precedents in earlier times....Yet void as these tombs are of identifiable mortal remains or immortal souls, they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings.

Anderson notes that nationalism, like religion, is an inevitable human response to "the overwhelming burden of human suffering--disease, mutilation, grief, age, and death." Rather than admit that life is random and that its resolutions are often violent and meaningless, and cruelly cheat all our hopes and aspirations (think of all the young married "strivers" who died at the Trade Center, with young children and new ones on the way), we seek "a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning."

And so we wish to remember the victims while forgetting any implication that their deaths were senseless. Almost since the first day, we have attempted to put our loss into the framework of a heroic national narrative. The widow of a banker or broker complained about all the fuss the world was making over the firefighters and police: "They never reached the upper floors....the people up there had to be their own heroes." Some of the families hold on to the idea that the lost were in a way soldiers, the first line of defenders fighting for the U.S. and democracy. Anderson also quotes Michelet, the nineteenth century historian of the French Revolution, who claimed to speak on behalf of the dead:

They need an Oedipus who can explain to them their personal enigma of which they did not grasp the meaning, who can teach them what their words and acts meant, that they did not understand.

Thus a memorial seems to me like a powerful load-bearing structure formed of the following components:

  1. A place to express and also to calm personal grief in a peaceful or beautiful surrounding, like a gravestone (my father's says, "Husband, Father, Scholar") or an impromptu memorial at the side of a rural road.

  2. A way of creating and communicating meaning, as a roadside memorial says something about drunk driving, or the ubiquitous banners and posters in New York now which say that we will never forget.

  3. A method for building or reaffirming community, of providing that element which Erikson says was completely lacking in Buffalo Creek, but which was strongly visible in New York (the Red Cross, the idolization of rescue workers, the improvised memorials, the inpouring of millions of dollars in contributions from everywhere).

  4. A means of transmitting a message about the community--our resistance, defiance, determination to continue in the face of further violence, and to live life as close to normally as can be, without abandoning our values.

  5. A means of transmitting a message about the event--that it was not meaningless, that our dead did not die in vain.

Note how these somewhat contradictory but overlapping desires are mediated by the choice of place. Why situate a memorial where someone died rather than in the place where he lived, loved, raised children, grilled food for friends, or engaged in numerous small but important acts of compassion and kindness? Why would it make more sense to raise a memorial in the place where a steel beam fell on his head? In the case of the roadside memorial, or of the World Trade Center one, the most likely answer is that communicating a message to other people has taken precedence over creating a private refuge of grief.

(There is another, not inconsistent explanation. For those who never recovered a body or even a body part from the World Trade Center, a memorial at the site may give the families more of a feeling of being in proximity to the loved one. The site itself becomes the graveyard. This is irrational but powerful; we need to touch something, to affirm death, to avoid being as puzzled as the dead themselves are according to Michelet.)

In any event, the question of the form a memorial should take becomes an arena where competing forces can fight. The answers fall on a spectrum: a memorial can be anything, from a huge public mirror or echo of a private space-- somewhere we can go to be alone together--to a museum of hatred (like the display the Palestinian college students put together of the suicide bomber blowing himself up in the pizza restaurant, with manikins representing Israelis flying to pieces).

According to an article in the New York Times for May 22,2002 ("Just Steel, Tempered by Memory", by Matthew Purdy, p. B1) the people of the town of Washingtonville, N.Y., which lost eleven firefighters at the trade center, are fighting over these issues today. Should the memorial be a statue of a firefighter, or a twisted beam from the towers, or both? A site for it was chosen, until parents objected that the firefighters' children would see it every day from their schoolbus, and would be distressed. Another place was chosen farther from the highway, where people would have to seek the memorial, rather than coming upon it unexpectedly.

In fact, a memorial is a communications medium. McLuhan taught us that there are hot and cool media. Cool media leave as much to the imagination as possible, forcing us to meet them half way. Hot media make us passive, because they present every detail, including telling us what to think about what we have seen.

On the mall in Washington, where I last was a few weeks ago, you can cross the gap in a few steps between hot and cool memorials. Start with Maya Lin's beautiful Vietnam memorial, a black marble wall arising from green earth, with the names of all the Vietnam dead engraved on it. About 100 feet away, are some very unmemorable statues of American soldiers, placed there as a sop to veterans and others outraged by the abstraction of Lin's design. Walk another few yards, and there is a Korean War memorial, twenty or so statues of U.S. soldiers on a mission, with guns at the ready, some carrying backpack radios with tall antennae on their backs.

Across the road is a marriage of cool and hot--the Lincoln Memorial, which I first saw on a school trip as a small child. The enormous statue of seated Lincoln is hot--he has a wise, kind, fatherly face; you certainly have no doubt what you are expected to think of him. But if you disregard the statue and turn to the left or right, you find Lincoln's words, which you may meet halfway, coming to them with the tools of your own intelligence and imagination. To Lincoln's right is the entire Gettysburg address, spoken at the dedication of the battlefield memorial. Lincoln's speech imposed for the ages a heroic national narrative onto a bloody struggle for land, property and power.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.....[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Meanwhile, over at Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial, people are being alone together-- placing flowers or creating rubbings of the name of a father, grandfather, or uncle, in a direct relationship with the deceased, yet comforted by the proximity of so many others. This kind of healing communication is not available at the rather ludicrous statue of the G.I.'s a few feet away.

In an essay she wrote in 1982 but published for the first time in The New York Review of Books for November 2, 2001, Lin described her experience, as a 21 year old Yale student, of winning the national competition for design of a memorial. One thing you realize is that we would never have had this beautiful structure if politics had not somehow been suspended momentarily. How else could a 21 year old woman, who had never built anything, win the competition, based exclusively on the strength of the design? The politics started after: everyone second-guessed everything: the color of the stone ("Black is not the color of shame," a black general said, ending that debate), its source (it couldn't come from any country which had harbored U.S. deserters) and the creation and placement of the soldier-statues (they were originally intended to look over the memorial as if they were walking alongside a wall--which would have emphatically ruined the entire effect).

Lin describes the motives underpinning the design:

I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure flat surface in the earth with a polished, mirrored surface. . . . The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember.

I think she achieved exactly what she wanted, despite the political interference. I hope the World Trade Center memorial will be in a cool medium like Lin's, leaving us mental space to grieve in privacy yet close to one another. If it is like that, I know I will go there often.

Do we need to create a memorial today, or is it better to wait? There is a strong human need to create these structures as rapidly as possible--the Gettysburg and World Trade Center memorials alike, while the war is still being fought. If we don't, we leave the families bereft. But if we build it now, we run the risk of deciding too quickly, doing the wrong thing in the wrong place, driven by politics and fear. The memorial to the 1993 victims--a stone circle with their names--was destroyed when the towers fell on September 11, 2001.

Then there is the question of how much of the site should be dedicated to the memorial. Mayor Giuliani and some of the families believe it should be the whole area, the entire footprint of the two towers and the space in between.

I don't agree. The memorial shouldn't occupy the whole site for the same reasons the two towers should never have been built in the first place. As Jane Jacobs teaches us in Life and Death of Great American Cities cities--communities--are most alive and vibrant where there is diversity:

When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighborhood of the whole begins to suffer: People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another.

The towers themselves--huge slabs in the sky without common areas, and deserted by everyone after business hours--were never a community. In their absence, rather than building a necropolis, we have the opportunity to create a thriving neighborhood of mixed commercial and residential uses, with the memorial as a crucial part--a phrase of memory, of sadness and regret, Anderson's "secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning". If the dead are not selfish, they would want us to honor them by living, not by dying. Grieving and remembering are just one use of the area, and should take their place as part of the entire skein of ongoing downtown New York life, next to flirting, lunch, bargaining, jokes, business meetings and playgrounds.