The National September 11th Memorial opened in lower Manhattan on September 12th, 2011; so, it has now been open for two years. Yet, though yours truly is a resident of New York City, I only got around to seeing it for the first time last week, in the company of an out-of-town visitor who was interested in going there. Frankly, I’d had no great interest in seeing it (which I knew meant reserving a ticket and then standing in line to gain access to the memorial). Why? I suppose—although I fully appreciate the purpose of a national memorial for the victims of the September 11th attacks—that I just felt no need to utilize it. Without wanting to come across dramatic and angst-ridden, I think I can honestly say that I remember the 9/11 attack each and every day that I am in New York. And I’m quite sure that something very similar is true for most New Yorkers who were here on the day it happened. It’s merely human nature. Familiar things retain the sense of such an emotional event. I can’t so much as glance at the skyline without some measure of remembrance, however fleeting. A jet airliner flying relatively low … it’s just the way it is, and will be, till these bones are desposited into the earth. And just the typical weather of September in New York City evokes that day, in a similar way to that in which a specific smell can evoke vivid memories of a long past moment.
In addition to that, I didn’t lose a loved one in the attacks, so the site would not be a place for me to go and remember or pray for any one in particular.
Nevertheless, I can well understand why out-of-towners would want to go, and so I dutifully accompanied my visitor. It was not a challenge to reserve tickets online a day before (the rush has diminished since the opening two years ago). And the line to get in, through the entrance at the corner of Greenwich and Albany, moved pretty quickly. In line, one’s first impression is the similarity to going through airport security. There is a fairly thorough security check (please leave your guns and bombs at the hotel) and the passes I’d printed out from the internet were checked no less than three times.
At the end of it, you emerge into the September 11th Memorial, which is entirely outdoors. It basically comprises the land area that was occupied by the Twin Towers, and the space between them and immediately around them. (The new World Trade Center “Freedom Tower” is immediately adjacent.) When the towers were standing, you would have been able to walk through this space freely, entering from multiple points on the Manhattan street grid. Now that they’re gone, there is the single entrance via the security checks.
There are lawns and trees. The memorial itself consists of two large and very deep square pools, occupying the footprints of the towers. Water cascades down all four sides of each pool, and then descends into a further square opening at the center and seems to disappear. A low wall surrounding each pool has inscribed the names of all the victims of the attacks (including victims of the Pentagon attack and of the 1993 WTC bombing).
We walked all the way around both memorial pools (the design is called “Reflecting Absence”), pausing a good deal. Looking out over one of the pools, I was asked if I found it moving, and I responded, “It’s impressive.” And it is, in scale and execution. “But,” I went on, “you can’t really get past the fact that it’s a drain.”
I can’t say how loved ones of the victims feel at this spot. I’m sure feelings vary and I hope some find some kind of solace. I cannot help imagining, however, that if someone I loved had died on this spot, I would not be uplifted by the notion of possibly some fragment of their earthly remains being perpetually washed down a huge dark drain.
It is naturally a secular (or, in alternative-lingo, a pagan) memorial. That’s to be expected given the times in which we live; were an eternal and living God invoked at some point during the construction with the idea of offering comfort to believers, S.W.A.T. teams with armored cars and bulldozers would likely have intervened before any harm might come to the innocent. It occurred to me that this memorial may, a couple of thousand years hence, be discovered and excavated and studied, much as neolithic tombs in Europe are so studied. Those ancient pagan peoples built and arranged stone memorials carefully calibrated to a solstice, like Newgrange and Stonehenge. Our descendants may try to figure out why we chose to dig these massive drains to honor our dead.
It’s easy to criticize, of-course. The memorial is here to stay; could those who criticize it have done any better than those who designed it? Well, given the time and money allocated, maybe. I guess for my part I would have started from the point of view of offering uplift. I would have been biased in favor of building something up instead of digging down. That’s how memorials have always been, after all. But I guess we live in the age that prizes novelty.
Given that it will be here for the foreseeable future, however, this visitor does have one suggestion that might be rated as constructive. I think that the lines and the security should be dispensed with. I think the entire memorial area should be opened up to the city the way that the original World Trade Center area was, and in the same way that every existing major park and memorial in New York City is open and accessible. Why put people through airport-style security before going to this particular place? I suppose it must be feared that terrorists could target it, but given the very open layout of the space, they would be just as well to target Central Park. The September 11th Memorial site is not the kind of confined space that would lend itself to a terrorist bombing. And I’d suggest that allowing our actions to be dictated by excessive fear of such terrorists is hardly a fitting tribute to those who died at their hands.
Some may feel that insufficient respect to the memorial would be shown by people who just wandered in off the street, but that doesn’t prevent, for instance, the nearby Vietnam Veterans memorial from being fully open to passersby. Instead, people who wouldn’t otherwise have taken the trouble to reserve a ticket to such a site simply arrive there by happenstance and are reminded of that which the memorial exists to remind people of.
I’m not naive enough to think that the September 11th Memorial site will be opened freely to the public in this way any time soon. But I have no doubt that eventually and inevitably it will be, because it simply makes no sense to shut off such a large part of lower Manhattan permanently. It will ultimately be a park amidst the skyscrapers—something treasured by New Yorkers—where people will walk and sit and have lunch and hopefully be reminded that on this spot thousands of people were murdered by nineteen men who were motivated by a big lie, who believed that they would receive an eternal reward in heaven for slaughtering infidels. And on this same spot hundreds of firefighters and police went forward into the cauldron even while assisting thousands of others to flee for their lives.
The design may have its failings, but regardless, in the end, the memorial has a purpose unto itself which rises above all of that. We must not—and please God we will not—ever forget.