Our last sight to see in New York was the National September 11 Memorial, a short walk from our hotel. Once I was there I felt l had already seen all I needed from our 24th floor hotel room window.
If there is a real monument to the terrorist attacks it is at the security control. Our tickets were looked at, scanned, and marked at three separate checkpoints. We had to empty our pockets and take off our belts (shoes could stay on). Officious volunteers ordered us to “move up, use every available space” even though there were 100 yards or more of emptiness through the rope maze behind us. At one juncture in this march, instead of following the person in front of us to the left we had to turn right into an empty space and buttonhook around to the left. I have no idea why. In other words: the usual ritual humiliation we’ve come to expect when traveling or visiting other landmarks or other exercises in liberty. I wonder if this was lost on the memorial’s boosters.
The memorial comprises a plaza, an unfinished museum, and two giant square drains in the footprints of the old twin towers. Names of the dead victims are engraved into the parapets. The bottoms of the drains are not visible from ground level. I understood the intent of the giant drains: placid sheets of water falling off dramatically into a deep void evoked sudden calamity and great loss. But memorializing the footprints of the two great towers as if they are sacred ground annoyed me. Look up from the memorial into any building now casting shadow onto it: soon it will be filled with people selling hedge funds or credit default swaps or performing other morally ambiguous duties. Around the footprints of the towers, where some may have leaped to their deaths or were otherwise snuffed out by the buildings’ collapse, is now just a pavement plaza trampled by us gawkers.
Trying to turn a financial center into hallowed space is simply a tasteless idea. Unlike a preserved battlefield we can learn nothing about the terrorist attacks by the present condition of the land, expect perhaps that we were so cowed by them that the memorial now lays beyond a phalanx of magnetometers and x-ray machines. The addition of the victims names to the memorial did nothing to humanize the place. The approach, which may have been novel and effective at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, totally fails to connect me with the dead. In the temporary museum nearby, a dusty wallet recovered from the wreckage and displayed in a lucite cube did much more for me emotionally.
The disconnect I felt came from the proximity in time of the memorial’s design and construction to the event itself. Most Civil War monuments, for example, were erected a generation or two later to rally citizens around other national challenges and to remind new generations of the old hardships as those who knew them first-hand died off. Most Americans saw the attacks on television, live and then in repeats for months and years afterwards. We think about September 11. 2001 every time a soldier gets killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or every time we partially disrobe before flying off to spend Thanksgiving with our families. So are we collectively needy of a memorial? Who does it serve? Isn’t it an expensive guilt trip foisted on us by a small group of extroverted mourners? Can’t I feel the national injury without also sharing in another family’s loss?
The memorial’s excess of sentimentality and its vacuum of meaning made me emotional for the wrong reasons and angry at the wrong people. Visiting the place felt like having our national dignity sucked into a pit of despair. I can’t believe this colossal public grief project has held us up for ten years from putting the World Trade Center back together. Getting the place back to normal quickly would have been the real monument to liberty and democracy.