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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. Opinions lately

    Anyone else think these opinion articles have been particularly trite lately?

    This is like someone walking around a cemetery and critiquing headstones.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  2. joec

    Bloggers lol, is there no "occupation" more comical?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:02 am |
  3. Michael

    9/11 was sad. The saddest thing was that it happened – that it will never make sense to anyone. So, here we are: a country who wants a monument to justly remember it exactly how we want it to be remembered. Like all art, which is what monuments are, not everyone is going to like the result. I actually like the monument a great deal – why evoke death? Why not evoke the great abyss that the waterfalls go into? That abyss is similar to our questions as to why it happened. To the point about families being listed together – yes, that is divisive. Life is divisive though. As much as I love all people, you better believe I consider my family and friends to be my most sacred tribes – above being a part of any other group. Therefore, if how I leave this world is by a tragedy deserving a monument, I want to be listed near/next to anyone I was close to and not 50 names apart.

    The fact is, the author is bitter. I am not sure why though – it's just odd to take out this frustration on a monument that cannot talk back nor is it likely to be re-done.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  4. templescroll

    Thats what you get when you commission an artist who comes from a culture segregated by hereditary factors and caste systems where every person is compartimentalized by socio economics and class structures. What about the bum on the street who died? Where does his name fit? And the single mom on the street going to pick up her daughter? The Chinese & culture is one of the most discriminating and regimented of people in any place on the planet! So how do you expect to see the names listed? Her artist expression with the waterfalls are staid at best. But again what do you expect from this artist Maya Lin : the names joined by hands surrounding by lyrics of Kumbaya? And peace signs? If you read her bio, she is art is firmly grounded in her Chinese cultural roots, even though she denies this and says in her bio "I didn't even know I was chinese until I was in my 30's". Her aunt is an architect in China and both her parents were born in China so this is B.S.! You can take Chinese out of their country but you can't take the culture out of Chinese.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • atomic

      @templescroll: Your racist stereotyping is not only offensive, but completely off the mark, because Maya Lin WAS NOT THE DESIGNER OF THE 9/11 Memorial. You lack basic reading comprehension skills. Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Memorial. Your use of cultural stereotypes of Chinese people to justify your criticism of the 9/11 Memorial–which the article CLEARLY states was designed by an Israeli-American–reveals not only your racism, but your STUPIDITY. And now that your error has been pointed out, I would not be the least bit surprised if you found some way to explain how the memorial's design flaws are due to ethnic and racial stereotypes about Israeli Jews. Learn to understand what you read, you bigot.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:59 am |
    • Saywhat

      Did you even read the article? The 911 Memorial was designed by an Israeli-American! Not by a Chinese. Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Next time you go off on a rant about a whole group of people, get your facts straight. Anyways, anything you post in the future will be ignored from here on out cause you're a total D-bag.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:07 am |
  5. SSampson

    I don't really get the point of the article – I would say that everyone has a different 'feeling' when they are at the memorial – and I understand that some people might want more.... but I think what they are looking for has nothing to do with the deisgn, but more for a wish for personal answers to 'why'.....

    Everyone was affected by these events – but I would suggest that the impact differs from person to person; that the answers (or perhaps cosire) that we seek cannot be created in such a manner that serves everyons needs...

    It is what it is – take from it what you will.... but nothing can be solved personally or nationally by a monument... That is a seperate quest...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • SSampson

      Whoops major typo – cosire – was meant to read 'closure'....

      February 28, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  6. No one

    Why on Earth would anyone feel it necessary to compare memorials?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Slow news day? Tired of bashing mormons? Reached quota for number of article on Catholics for the month?

      February 28, 2012 at 2:59 am |
  7. Ted Striker

    I personally haven't been to the memorial site (was there when it was still under construction), but if the location is what I remember, it's smack in the middle of one of the busiest parts of Manhattan. Part of the goal of building the new tower was to give a big F U to the terrorists, letting them know that they FAILED and we were going to go on living our lives as Americans. The fact that the tourists can walk around there care-free is a testament to the fact the WE WON. Osama Bin Laden is DEAD. F that guy.

    So do you really want a dreary setting in the middle of the busiest metro area in our nation?

    As far as the memorial goes, perhaps some type of side room or area for the families may be needed for them to leave momentos or grieve privately.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:55 am |
  8. PhilG.

    I absolutely agree with the author.

    The 911 memorial is a disgrace.

    In that tragedy,there were so many examples of bravery,of total selflessness and dedication to duty and to rescuing and loveing people that those who did that never even knew that to put a couple of what look like fancy sewer drain holes in the ground and rim them with stone is simply a disgrace.

    The memorial should have been of several figures in stone,a fireman,a policeman,several ordinary people helping people out into the street and another stone figure of the same group of people going up a staircase that ends in a way that shows reverence for those peoples sacrific.

    Ths 911 memorial as it stands is the same -we must share the shame- nonsense that most memorial makers try to force down our throats today.

    No-we don't .

    I am profoundly proud of how New Yorkers came together on that day,how they stood above their monumental fear and strove to help all of those still trapped high in those two towers that day.

    There is absolutely no evidence of the brilliant love that New Yorkers are supposed to never show to one another but on that day it was everywhere to be seen.

    'They became as one.

    Blank-Blank that memorial.

    It's totally inadequate for the sacrifices those brave New Yorkers made as well as every other nationality Worldwide in New York made that day.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • A Muslim

      The problem with creating such a memorial as you speak is that people would go there and it may make the memories even more vivid. Plus, it might be too much to put at ground zero. Not everything needs something fancy. The names are more than an enough of a reminder than having the giant statues described. It simple, and when we look at the names on it we realize religion didn't matter at all, or where they came from....The people that died in 9-11 will always be in my heart and are always in my daily prayers.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  9. Mike

    How was the 1993 bombing in the parking garage twenty years ago?

    It's still 2012.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  10. Not Given

    You're wrong to criticize the name clustering. The difference between the Vietnam Wall and the 9/11 Memorial is the victims died THERE, as a group with their friends, family, and colleagues. In many cases, they likely died in these groups at the site of the Memorial. On the Vietnam Wall, the names are ordered very specifically too; in the order in which they were brought HOME, were the Memorial is located. The ordering of the names in both cases is appropriate for the situation.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  11. kramses86

    Why does CNN pay their Editors? This articel was filled with nonsense. A memorial is a memorial. as long as it was done in good taste and serves the purpose of remembering those who have fallen then it has done its job!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  12. Dawn

    1)Does anyone at CNN proofread articles before they are posted here?
    2)Monuments of sacrifice and rememberance, as both of these memorials are, serve the purpose of offering a central place to mourn and remember those who are lost. What difference does it make where the names are located?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • me

      And anyone has the right to give their own opinion about the memorial. I agree with Stephen, the 9/11 memorial design wasn't the best, it seems more like a tourist attraction instead of a deep-rooted memorial for the victims. Didn't know that about not allowed to throw flowers into the reflecting pools, seems such a pity when in past years before the memorial was constructed, family members had small pools at the site and they were able to leave flowers there. Those giant pools that only footprint where the towers were don't have the real essence of a reflecting pool, much less the touch of a memorial with all that noise, they should of done something to make the water fall gently and not like a loud cascade, they don't even have the basic gentleness an ordinary fountain would have...

      February 28, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  13. fearmonger

    Religion... this is why more and more people take you less seriously day by day.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • Robert

      Religion isn't God.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  14. Mad Cow

    Remember the Alamo!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:59 am |
  15. Chris

    The Vietnam Memorial is a masterpiece of design. While located near the busy Washington, Lincoln, and Reflecting Pool monuments , it is just far enough away to seem quite and secluded. The Memorial consists of two wedge shaped walls which are set at an angle. As one enters there are only a few names listed on the narrow end of the wedge, but the number increases as you proceed down the path and the height of the wall rises until it is above your head. By the time you reach the center of the memorial the shear number of names overwhelms you. All those 50,000+ individually carved names of people who died in the war, a war that many think perhaps should not have been fought. I felt a deep sense of sadness, and tears did come to my eyes.

    The Korean War Memorial is located on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. It's a fine memorial as they go, but I did not feel the same sense of loss as the Wall produced. I have not yet been to the 911 Memorial, but the author could well be correct that its location and design does not produce quit the same evocative response as that of the Vietnam Wall. Perhaps the best memorial for 911 is the Freedom Tower rising on the site.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  16. Ralph

    You a freaking idiot for writing this piece. You must just like to type. Worthless article and you deserve to be beaten for trash talking the memorial to 9/11. Get a new job.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  17. Dana52

    Soldiers who died seving their country in a very unpopular war are going to have a diferent memorial and attendent "atmosphere" than a memorial designed for "civilian" victims of a single mass murder. Comparing the two is not only illogical, it is disrespectuf to all the people who died, as well as to those who put thousands of carefully considered and respectful hours creating both memorialls. The 9-11 memorial is also located in a city that "belongs" to the world and does not do anything quietly; light and darkness co-exist in NYC, and there is in general a collectively loud ambience. So you can say that iin short, both memorials, who honor dead who no longer care about such things, are serving exactly the function intheir respective communities of folks who are still living, perfectly.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  18. BCA

    This article is complete trash. Not only is it a poorly edited mess, it seeks to compare the valiant dead of war to the instant death of many innocent people. This is not a memorial to soldiers, it is a memorial to those who went to work on a seemingly normal day and lost their lives. In my opinion, both memorials are incredibly thoughtful monuments to the people and the causes involved, the writer of this article doesn't have a single functioning brain cell in his head.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  19. Ryan Jackson

    I can't imagine why you would think any memorial is up for critique beyond the point it is built. Once it is built, it is about respecting the what/who is in memorium. Thank you for your after the fact input to no end. Shame on you for writing this self serving piece.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • CAD

      I think that it is important to note that this piece is written predominantly as an architectural critique. In the world of criticism of art and architecture, there is and always should be room to take a critical view of what people make. There will be more memorials built and more works of art made that memorialize the dead. In order to better serve the remembered as well as those that they leave behind, it is important to for us as a society to approach such works with respect as well as criticism, as we do with any thing else of such seriousness.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:18 am |
  20. Ramez George

    the memorial is an insertion in the corrupt master plan, so it doesn't matter if it is good or bad , the whole site is designed to serve the purpose of the developers and defeat the purpose of the entire country. i wrote a book "in For A Dream?" regarding rebuilding Lower Manhattan. you can check my book's Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/Ramez.George2

    February 28, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Josh

      Dude, Seriously... Self promotion in an article about a memorial to something that changed history? Go away....

      February 28, 2012 at 1:29 am |
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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.