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My Take: 9/11 Memorial not sacred enough
The names at the 9/11 Memorial are overly segmented, the author argues.
February 27th, 2012
02:51 PM ET

My Take: 9/11 Memorial not sacred enough

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Sunday was the 19th anniversary of the first World Trade Center terrorist attack, which claimed 6 lives on February 26, 1993. I took this occasion as a chance to see the 9/11 Memorial, which remembers these six victims alongside the 2977 people killed on September 11, 2001, in the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

I have been writing recently about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Lower Manhattan site is obviously influenced by that design. So it is hard to avoid comparisons. There are the granite walls, though in the New York memorial there is flowing over them. And there are the names of the dead, though in New York they are cut through bronze rather than inscribed on granite.

But the spirit of the 9/11 Memorial is very different.

As you approach The Wall designed by architect Maya Lin in Washington, the mood of the place is almost palpably sacred. Mourners cry. Visitors move slowly and speak in hushed tones. At the 9/11 Memorial the first impression is also auditory, though here it loud: water crashing over a series of waterfalls.

The other impression is of scale. Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which feels intimate, this place feels big — as big and as loud as America.

At the 9/11 Memorial there are two areas of remembrance, each occupying one of the massive footprints of the towers that fell that day. Each is square in design, with water cascading down each side, and then cascading again inside a smaller square, out of eyesight at the center of each pool.

At least for me, this was reminiscent of nothing so much as the big waterfalls you see sometimes inside of skyscrapers. It didn’t evoke nature. It didn’t evoke death.

The winning design, by the Israeli-American architect Michael Arad, is called “Reflecting Absence,” and that feeling is definitely conveyed here: the buildings are gone, we are told, as are the people whose names line the bronze panels that line the edges of each pool. But that message felt obvious.

What was missing, at least for me, was a sense of the ineffable, of mystery — something akin to that moment when you stand before The Wall and its endless names and you see yourself in the reflection and you start to reflect yourself on war and peace and what you have done (or left undone) to make either and what are the meanings and ends of America, and of life itself.

There is no similar confrontation at the 9/11 Memorial — no reckoning.

As I circled the North and South Tower sites, I noticed names of people of many religions: Muslim names, Hindu names, Sikh names, Jewish names. I also noticed unborn children memorialized alongside their mothers — a feature absent from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But I was upended by what came to feel, at least to me, like a hyper-segmentation of the names.

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the names of the dead are presented chronologically, from those who died at the beginning of the war through those who died at the end. Here there are sections for victims on each of the fateful flights that day, for those who died in the North Tower and those who died in the South Tower, and for people who died at the Pentagon. The first responders are also presented together, though they are further segmented by groups — by ladder and engine, for example.

There is also an effort to list names by “meaningful adjacencies”—in other words, by their relationships to one another. So siblings are listed next to each other, as are the hundreds of people who died at the offices of investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald.

Although I understand and applaud the impulse to group friends with friends and families with families, I found the seemingly endless segmentation of groups (there was one victim listed with the U.S. Secret Service) literally divisive. At The Wall in Washington, you experience the dead as individual human beings, and as members of a single group. There is no separate section for the Marine, for example, or the Army. At the 9/11 Memorial you encounter the dead as members of groups.

This memorial is not yet finished. The trees planted on the plaza have not yet taken full shape. The museum is not yet opened. So it is possible that visitors will start to experience this memorial differently in months and years to come. But during my initial visit what I experienced was a site at odds with itself — like when you go to church to pray in Paris and there are tourists sitting behind you talking in some other language about which museum to visit next.

During  my visit on Sunday, there was a white rose lying atop the names of the six people killed 20 years ago at the World Trade Center site, and visitors observed a moment of silence at 12:18 p.m. — the time when the site was first attacked. I also saw two women tracing the names of a victim on paper, as visitors do at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But visitors are instructed not to throw anything in to the water, and there isn’t much room to leave things behind as mourners do at The Wall. So right now, at least, the first order of business at the 9/11 Memorial seems to me to be tourism. People smiled wide for their cameras, and talked of banal things.

We must talk of such things, of course. Life goes on. But in a memorial like this I wanted more of the sacred and less of the profane.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
Double line return after 3rd graph.

M should be me here:  But I was upended by what came to feel, at least to m, like a hyper-segmentation of the names.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 9/11 • Art • My Take • New York • Sacred Spaces • United States

soundoff (342 Responses)
  1. DVD

    You overlooked that the memorial is still in a process of development. It is located in the midst of a giant construction site with security needed for the safety of the public. It remains a target. The memorial experience will change as other elements of the site are completed ie(museum, full plaza use and passive areas available from all directions). The 10 anniversary date and its symbolism rushed the process to have a focal point of the site completed. A remarkable amount of brain power and design and construction talent deserves all our appreciation for access to the memorials current state.

    April 6, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  2. AmericaIsWeird

    Lol, no sacred enough. The problem is its not bad-ass enough. It should have been the same buildings, taller buildings, or a giant c**k.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  3. Guest

    CNN is running a report now that human remains from 9/11 went into a landfill, I guess to clear space for this monument.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  4. Guest

    I like the feeling of a huge void in the memorial. Before the buildings used to tower over us. now you have the negative of that. Plus the water comes out as separate streams representing the individual and then merges together to show a shared fate or experience. People are grouped together because they would want to be grouped together with their friends and colleagues. Because they died together. Survivors can be found standing by their group of names. Plus there is a tree on site being held up by rope. That tree survived the 9-11 attacks and then when it was transplanted to another location, a lightning strike. Now it's back on site as a symbol of endurance. I think a lot of thought was put into this. Anyway, I guess it is not quiet enough, but I found going there to be a moving experience. Even a peaceful experience.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.