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 • New York • Sacred Spaces • United States

soundoff (342 Responses)
  1. William

    Maybe before you write a piece on the 9/11 memorial you should give your article a quick proofread. I'd expect this many spelling errors from a 6th grader.

    February 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • joy

      Where are the presumed "many spelling errors" at? You're a narcissist.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  2. Atheist

    I can´t wait for the day burqa/niqab gets banned in America!

    February 27, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  3. ZihuaRob

    I didn't realize the USA needed to build memorials to commemorate acts of terrorism. Sometimes people can be honored better simply by remembering who they were and what they did, not how they died.

    February 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  4. ken

    It was rainy day when I saw the memorial in December. The beautiful lights of the skyline lifts one spirit, for me it wasn’t a sad place, however, knowing so many people were killed on this spot and almost at the same time is overwhelming. The sounds of the waterfalls are big like the city and the towers that once stood there. The names of the lost are etched out of the bronze, which are backlit. The glow of their names takes away the overwhelming presence of lost.

    Lincoln said of Gettysburg, “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.

    I do look forward to returning to New York one day and spending time on this hallow ground.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  5. Get Your God Out of my Lexicon

    Christian seem to think they have a right to contro everything and everyone, including the meaning of words. I do not recall any law that declares the Christians have the right to define words in th english language for everyone else.

    To the vast world outside yours, Marriage is not a word with a single meaning. Nor is the word sacred. And you do not get to control how other people use words and enrich their own meaning with them.

    If the word 'sacred' is to you, the individual, only the things you listed above, that is fine and legitimate IN YOUR LIFE. You have NO right to enforce that meaning on others.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • NJ

      America is a Christian country..... you know it already and stop playing dúmb

      February 27, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • momoya

      Well stated, Lexicon!!

      February 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Christians unite in Jesus' righteousness. All the rest of you conduct your temper tantrums while ranting and whining that it should be all about you, you, you. Take it to your non-believers meetings. Oh, that's right, you folks wouldn't tolerate each other because you know you wouldn't be center of attention. LOL.


      February 27, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Bob

      HeavenSent, how's your daily sheep sacrifice going? Are you splattered with the blood as usual? Remember, your nasty Jesus said all the OT laws still apply, so go jump that poor sheep.

      The bible is very clear, and with lurid gory detail, that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes your sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Please, stop referencing that Christian book of nasty, AKA the bible, as a guide to, well, anything.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Be free of religion in 2012.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Bob

      @HeavenSent,Well said!

      February 27, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      It amazes me Bob, the only people who complain about Jesus' truth are those that are lost. Truly lost and have no clue what Jesus brings to our lives. Therefore, go back to your classroom learning negativity at it's finest from other lost individuals who ensure you stay just as miserable as them. As for me, I will always LOVE Jesus and His truth.


      February 28, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • name

      atheists are so contradictious & such hypocrites

      February 28, 2012 at 3:07 am |
  6. Uncouth Swain

    100 years from now, it won't really be sacred at all.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Janine

      The more this country becomes secular, the more it will be forgotten

      February 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Actually...it's human nature.
      How weepy do you get for the Battleship Maine exploding?

      February 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  7. NJ

    America is a Christian country and there should be a huge Christian cross and Jesus statue dominating NY skyline. Those who don't like it should move or shut up. I'm sick and tired of those non-Christians trying to take our freedom and rights !!

    February 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Someone is begging for an argument here.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Further proof that faith makes you stupid.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      TROLL. Or else an idiot.

      February 27, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • bdsterne

      As a Christian, let me be the first to say that you are the absolute worst of what being Christian has come to represent.

      February 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • ChurchOfReason

      Freedom and rights means we have the freedom to choose not believe in the same religions, or in no religion at all if we want (not to mention a supposedly god given right to free will and choice). So don't try saying everyone in America should be christian you ignorant zealot! And no, I'm not muslim either since I'm sure that's where you'll think this opinion is coming from. Now go get cleaned up for your cross burning, I think I hear a jewish family moving in near you. People like you make me sick, your just as intolerant as the terrorists! If you wanna live in an all christian country move to Vatican City!

      February 27, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Janine

      Jews are Christ killers.... at least Muslims believe in Christ unlike Jews

      February 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • michael

      Janine, you truly are an idiot, keep your ignorance to yourself. it would help if you understood the basis of the three major religions before you write something so idiotic.

      February 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Get Your God Out of my Lexicon

      Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were atheists and George Washington an avowed secularist along with the vast majority of the founding fathers who specifically laid down everything they had to fight theocratic facist morons like yourself. It is so sad and pathetic to know there are idiot americans like you alive who have zero understanding of their Republic's history. Christians enjoy the most special rights of them all, no draft, tax exempt status, exclusive marriage rights, all because you believe in a false voodoo doll. You will rot in the h*ll you preach of before anyone else you sick and vile excuse for an American. Rot in a hole. But first, let me delight in the fantasy of your church being torched with your kids inside. It would be a fine and just revenge for the blood of innocents spilled by the murderous christians of this world. Your time is coming.

      February 27, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Get Your God Out of my Lexicon

      Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were atheists and George Washington an avowed secularist along with the vast majority of the founding fathers who specifically laid down everything they had to fight theocratic facist morons like yourself. It is so sad and pathetic to know there are idiot americans like you alive who have zero understanding of their Republic's history. Christians enjoy the most special rights of them all, no draft, tax exempt status, exclusive marriage rights, all because you believe in a false voodoo doll. You will rot in the h*ll you preach of before anyone else will. You people are sick and vile child abusers and disgusting excuses for Americans. Your traitorous ways will come home to roots when the God you preach of punishes you for infringing upon the dignity and freedom of those you preach against. You will Rot in a hole. But first, let me delight in the fantasy of your church being torched with your kids inside. It would be a fine and just revenge for the blood of innocents spilled by the murderous christians of this world. Your time is coming.

      February 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      I agree with NJ. You non-believers should buy an island in Dubai, live together in unrighteous chaos.


      February 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  8. Rational Libertarian


    McVeigh was an agnostic.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  9. Joshua Hillman

    I don't know about this really. I believe being a NY'er we're a little more moved by it and the process it took to rebuild.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:36 pm |

    • “If you didn't care what happened to me,
      And I didn't care for you,
      We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain,
      Occasionally glancing up through the rain,
      Wondering which of the buggers to blame
      And watching for pigs on the wing”

      February 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  10. Yarah

    All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terriorists were Muslims.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Oh, the evangelical christians will rapidly catch up to them. Just give it a few years

      February 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Greenspam

      What about Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma city bombing? McVeigh was a Christian.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Ever heard of the IRA, the UDA, the UDF, the INLA, the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, FARC, ELN, ISYF and various other non Muslim terrorist groups whom I can't think of. Also, what about those crazy Christians that bomb planned parenthood clinics and murder abortion doctors, they are also terrorists.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian


      McVeigh was an agnostic, but religion didn't guide his actions. He did what he did as he hated the ever expanding nature of the government. While what he did was deplorable, I agree with the sentiment. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have become 'big government' parties, turning the land of the free into the land of the enslaved.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Amistavia, if you believe yourself to be righteous and innocent, think again about why you're so anti-social towards society.


      February 27, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  11. holyhellministry

    ...Think of the volume of work and the intellectual levels of the designers, engineers, planners, financiers and workers who created those magnificent towers; Then think of the level of skill and intelligence of those who built the airliners from the days of the Kitty Hawk; Then think of the mentality of those who slit throats, hijacked and flew the planes into the WTC towers, blocking out the reality that the lids of their coffins would close on them with the deaths of 3000 souls to their credit. Mostly burned to death, crushed under tons of concrete & steel and baked @ 1800 degrees for six weeks. This describes the level at which they passed into eternal life. We honored them here by burying their ashes, along with the other rubble at the dump with a bulldozer, A Historic Site; The Landfill Of The Unknown Terrorist. Some of the steel from those structures has been reforged into the USS New York, a peacekeeper’s platform designated to keep our world free for time to come. Their harsh lessons teach us to be strong and stay vigilant. The Good have become better and the Bad have become worse.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  12. James X. Byrd

    As with anything, perception and taste are highly personal. I haven't been to NY to see the memorial, and frankly, I doubt I ever will. However, your personal opinion is just that – your opinion. And dare I say that opinions come a dime a dozen. The designer did not consult you, nor did the panel that ultimately chose that design to be the memorial. The panel must have thought it was a good design, or they wouldn't have chosen it. So it didn't make you feel warm and fuzzy. How sad. I get the feeling that you really just needed a topic for your blog and you chose to fill your blank space with a lot of artsy-fartsy whining.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  13. Mike P

    What I hate about the memorial is that al Qaeda turned two towers into two holes in the ground, and our idea of the memorial is to keep those holes around forever rather than build equally glorious towers on top of them and say to the terrorists, "See? What you did is erased. Your stupid, senseless act may as well never have happened, you utter tools."

    If I'd had my way I would have build structurally-reinforced replicas of the twin towers with an extra floor at the top layered in pure gold from Afghan mines - so not only did we rebuild, we crowned our towers with the spoils of your broken country. (Okay, maybe that's a little much.)

    February 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • anonymous

      I couldn't agree more. Why give in to the terrorists, by creating a memorial, that obviously left the writer feeling "empty?" By rebuilding the towers, you basically give the finger to a group of people who couldn't bring a nation down.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • One4theMoney24theShow

      Exactly. How many times do we as Americans have to feeeeeeelllllllll something. Everything does not have to be memorialized. The money wasted in this can go to help support our economy or feed our starving American kids. Get over it people. All the honoring in the world will not bring these people back. Some people actual like this kind of stuff because it is the only time they feeeellllll something...sort of like folks that attend funerals for fun. Move on!

      February 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Just when I thought you cold hearted creatures couldn't be more clueless! You go lower each and every post.


      February 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  14. Dodney Rangerfield

    goddlessAndFree and not too fooking smart.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer makes you fat.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
      Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
      Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
      Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
      Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
      Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
      Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
      Prayer dulls your senses.
      Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
      Prayer is unproductive.
      Prayer wastes time.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • AtheistReply

      All religions are not healthy for children and other living things. Humans created god(s) from their own imagination. Religion is what kills people over man made imaginary god(s) Allah vs Jesus vs Apollo vs Superman vs The tooth fairy vs Santa Claus etc.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Proven (no need to thank me)

      February 27, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Mike

      Prayer is the personal communication with God, not a "problem solver" for physical things, much less to negative atheist who care less about their feelings and emotions. Prayer also gives spiritual comfort to a person.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  16. Crust

    build a Walmart, it has as much meaning (maybe more)

    February 27, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  17. Ann

    Maybe we should just admit it: We're never going to all be completely happy with the blasted thing. They barely even got it finished in time for the anniversary because there were so many issues and arguments about it. Some people wanted the names, others wanted to throw up new buildings...everyone's touchy about it, too. I went to New York recently and didn't go see this, although I didn't really have time to. While I think something should mark the event and the losses, I'm not too mothertrucked about the details. The fact remains that it happened and the people died. Nothing's going to change that. And I'm not sure why the size and quality of one's monument needs to direct how you feel about the event.

    Either way, New York got itself a little green space, and it's getting a new building, too, so...c'est la vie. Also, there's no way to create something like the Vietnam Memorial in Manhattan. There are inherent design restrictions.

    February 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  18. Crust

    Yeah, and they forgot the names of the inside under-ops who really pulled off this sideshow?

    February 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  19. goddlessAndFree

    CaptainAmerica -Well well, it's been a while since I've come across such a delusional little prik
    as yourself. For the benefit of us all, kindly evolve or stfu.

    BTW: Your god is an illusion. Your scriptures are lies.

    February 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • just wondering

      Where is the post you are replying to?

      February 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm |

    • I think it means delusional little prick – and it hopes to be insulting before God.

      February 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  20. YourMom

    They should have just re-built the towers and acted like nothing happened to give a big F U to the terrorists.

    February 27, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • GodPot

      That would have been way to adult for us. We needed to go to war with two countries, spend hundreds of billions of dollars and try to turn 9/11 where 3000 Americans were killed into a religious war on Islam. Not very many people noticed the 13,290 Americans killed the same year by drunk drivers...

      February 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
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