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. Gedwards

    In other words and despite the name, more of an attraction than a memorial.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  2. Nolan

    Of course you aren't going to get the most quiet, peaceful experience-the memorial is in Lower Manhattan. I think that this memorial is very well thought out and it looks amazing to me, I hope to see in person after the museum opens up.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm |

    More people are dying in this country every month from cancer than the twin towers + Pentagon. Make a monument to them and stop your pathetic whining. You'll have another muzzie blow himself up next to the statue of liberty and then you'll be blabbering for another 10+ years? Enough already.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • dont be a sucker

      While I somewhat agree with your "stop whining" perspective, ya gotta admit that people dying from things like lung cancer aren't subject to the instant horror that comes with having to make a choice between being burned alive – or- jumping off a building from 100 stories up

      February 27, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  4. Dave Coyle

    The fact that my brother in laws name is next to his brothers name comforts me quite a bit. And that someone else from Cantor Fitzgerald asked that their loved ones name be on the other side of my Brother-in laws name makes me proud he was admired. I'm sorry you didn't like what you saw and experienced at the 9/11 Memorial but for those of us who never found their loved ones after that day it works just fine that their names are grouped together. I'm quite sure their last, terrifying moments were spent together, comforting each other as they do now in eternity. I'm sure you meant no harm.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  5. dread

    When addressing an issue so intrinsically charged with emotion, like 911, an article like this intends to become a lightning rod for comments and criticisms. Although it was introspective, the article's poor grammar and typo-s lost me immediately. If this is what you (the author of the article) do for a living, please hold yourself to a higher standard. You might elicit a different response from your readers.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  6. Jon

    Agree with everything above. Stephen Prothero, this isn't just people who disagree with you – you really are stupid.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • Jon

      by above, I meant everything above when I was writing the reply...i.e. the comments.

      No I don't agree with the comments – this article was utterly pointless.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • KED

      You seem to be struggling to make a clear point. First you write that you agree with everything above, which would be taken as agreeing with the article.

      Then to try and clarify, you say that you mean you agree with the comments, not the article. But then follow that with a sentence that says you don't agree with the comments. . .

      February 27, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  7. John in AZ

    What a pointless review...so you didn't get what you wanted to get out of it? Too bad. I've been to both, and didn't feel the need to compare my subjective feelings about them. I was just saddened at the loss of human life and thankful for the chance to reflect on it.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  8. Rob Eimer

    I visited this memorial a few weeks ago. Maybe things have changed, but I doubt it. By the time I actually made it to the memorial, I think I was more angry than anything else. Although I wanted to pay my respects and take in the scene and the magnitude of the tragedy, I first had to go get a ticket from a location several blocks away. Then I had to wait in line for probably a half an hour, only to find out the wait was not due to sheer numbers, but rather because I had to take off items of clothing and go through a metal detector like I was about to board a plane. This whole process made me so angry. It inherently takes away from the sentiment of being able to pay your respects. Instead of heading into this memorial thinking about those who lost their lives, you're actually wondering if you still have your keys, wallet and phone. If your belt has metal in it, why your jacket has to be analyzed under an x-ray machine, etc. Maybe when the construction of the new towers is finished these measures will be taken away. I certainly hope so.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Soctane

      Sadly, that process is everyone's 9/11 memorial. 🙁

      February 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • Roger Lund

      I had the same reaction a few weeks go when I went. Five times, yup 5 times, I had to show my ticket. Then the airport type metal detectors.

      I really wanted to feel for the victims and certainly did, but my truest sadness was the realization that in many ways the terrorists won. I didn't feel free. I didn't even feel like I was in my own country. It was a sad feeling – and for all the wrong reasons.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  9. Grammar Police

    This is an unreadble article. It appears to be written by an adolescent teen. Grammar, punctuation, missing words, etc.

    Where are the CNN proofreaders? Or is it the job of the readers now?

    February 27, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • Mike

      CNN's quality control on their website has always been shoddy at best. They really should be embarrassed.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  10. Greta

    First, when did people stop proofreading/editing their writing? This article has so many typos, it must be a first draft.
    Second, I've been to the memorial twice now and had a completely different impression – I felt it was beautifully done and was a touching memorial for the victims of that horrible day. That's my opinion.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • charity ball

      greta........i agree but wonder why there are some many inconsistencies in the 9/11 story and wonder why there are no jewish names on the memorial...........and why bthe media cover-up of the Third Tower WTC # 7 and since when do jetliners
      disintegrate.no way..c'mon see loosechange911.com or 911thruth.org..they are lying to us through their teeth.......
      keep the faith

      February 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Greta

      Oh please, Charity Ball. I hate 9/11 "truthers" just about as much as I hate the terrorists. The Loose Change video is nonsensical conspiracy crap.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Otter

      @charity ball – you clearly have never been to the memorial. 'No Jewish names'? Are you kidding me? Oh, but now you'll say the Jewish names listed are fake names to fool people. Go take your tin foil hat and hide in the basement because in your world I'm sure you're making Them angry that you're trying to get The Truth out... Watch your back! They're WATCHING YOU!

      February 27, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Schaz

      Wouldn't it be scary if the grammar, and other errors were a result of the editing rather than the lack thereof?

      February 27, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  11. Chris C.

    Wow. People need to relax...like a lot! If you have forgotten, let me remind you that this is the opinionated blog section of CNN.com where everyday normal people are allowed to WRITE THEIR OPINIONS openly and freely. If you do not agree, simply ignore the article. Quit judging and thrashing each other — or, in this case, Stephen Prothero — with your words of violent disagreement and hatred for something that is one's OPINION. Relax, folks. I promise you: the world is NOT ending just because Mr. Prothero wrote a blog article. If you like the memorial, great. Maybe you should write a response article, then.

    As LARRY A. pointed out, " We would be a better, stronger nation if we enbraced our similiarties rather than focused on our differences."

    February 27, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  12. Goose66

    Why all the vitrial against this guys opinion? Can we not comment on what makes a good memorial and a bad memorial? That's just silly to think that somehow comment on the memorial or what it lacks is somehow uncaring or unpatriotic. For my, I think putting a memorial here is stupid in the first place. Whenever I see it, it just serves as a monument to the victory of the Islamic terrorists, and I think that is the most tragic mistake of all.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • charity ball

      Goose........... i agree, the vitriol is childish and what ever happened to free speeh.........I think the memorial is very elegant and eloquent...my questions are why are there no jewish names on the memorial.....were some people warned away.......
      why were the towers re-insured only weeks before 9/11 and why is it that hundreds of engineers and architects say the official story is total bull and why has the media covered up the story behind the third tower..see architects and engineers for 9/11 truth.org or loosechange911.com.or buildingwhat.org.................it's all very very fishy............keep the feaith

      February 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  13. Robert

    I think two things are being compared here that aren't really the same thing. While, they are both memorials that use a list of names to give us the sense of impact of the lost while also reminding us that each lost life is a person they remind us of two different things.

    The Vietnam War was a lengthy and divisive war that occurred during a time when the draft existed. It was also a time when people were more willing to enlist. This was when a significant segment of our population was either in Vietnam, related to someone in Vietnam, or knew someone in Vietnam. This war impacted every one very directly.

    The World Trade Center attack on 9/11 is the most significant single terrorist attack not only on US soil but probably anywhere. For the first time since World War 2 someone attacked us at home. They not only killed many people and destroyed two iconic buildings but they did so underneath our noses. They came here, learned to fly here, and hurt us here. That said, the psychological impact is not as direct as Vietnam.

    Most people outside of the NYC area don't know anyone who died. I live outside of Philadelphia and I can count on my one hand the number of times I was in NYC before 9/11. If I was a baby boomer and I visited The Wall there is a chance I might recognize someone on it. I am certain I wouldn't know anyone who's name is listed at the 9/11 Memorial. I wouldn't want to try and put someone's life on a scale against someone else's but there is a difference between tragically losing someone you knew and a stranger.

    Both of these Memorials are real markers for our history and how we have been changed by them. Just not in the same way.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • charity ball

      .............a terrible day for America and god rest the souls of those lost but have you ever wondcered about the inconsistencies in the whole story....what about the third tower, why were there no bodies and no jet debris at the pentagon, why were the towers re-insured only weeks before 9/11, why are there no jewish names on the memorial save for one unlucky soul (were people warned away if so by whom), why were so many Mossad agents picked up in New York on and around 911.......was there a deliberate stand down of US air defense on 9'11 while Cheney(draft dodging coward) conducted simulated war games on the eastern seaboard which included attacks on New York and DC..........is NORAD and the air force that inept.....I think not..................peace

      February 27, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  14. michael

    stephen, for you to bring tourism into a memorial site, let alone 9/11, is a true disgrace. it's unbelievable that CNN actually posted your hanus opinion. keep the rest of your trash in the garbage where it belongs.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  15. Docdeb

    The waterfalls absolutely feel dramatic since you can't see down them . A sense of loss is palpable. Perhaps it was the author's mood and receptiveness when he visited that was off. It certainly isn't the memorial which is touching, dramatic yet classy.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  16. Starfish

    Wow. Sorry you were not fulfilled. Because this memorial is all about you. You are a jerk. Keep your opinions to yourself. And, if you cannot, why not just go urinate on the memorials instead? It will insult less people in a substantially less public forum.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  17. Danil

    You're right, they should of added fireworks and neon lights. That would of been neat!

    February 27, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • FlaPete

      I really think you've got your head WAY up your ass,that's all period....case closed,leave them alone....

      February 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Danil don't listen to him

      I think you on to something

      also sell cotton candy on site in the shape of the two towers with a toy plane sticking out of them (optional lighter sold separately)

      February 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  18. Larry A

    My wife and I visited the 9/11 memorial site last month and felt it was a wonderful, moving tribute to the people that tragiclally are no longer with us. I am sorry if the writter felt otherwise. America will not forget what happened that day, it is etched in our collective memory forever. I only wish the great people of this country could come together again as Americans, rather than republicans and democrats, christians and nonchristians, white, black or brown, because when we are gone those things do not really matter. We would be a better, stronger nation if we enbraced our similiarties rather than focused on our diferences.

    February 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  19. Osama Bin Laughin

    "Okay guys, here's the plan, we fly a few planes into highly visible areas of America for our attack."
    "Then what Bin Laughin?"
    "Then we hide of course, you don't sting the bull and wait around to see what happens..."
    "But what will killing a few thousand Americans really do? We can't win a war like that."
    "Ah, but you see, I have studied their ways and all we need do is sting the rump and let the bull thrash about spending huge amount of their capital, banging into their friends and making new enemies, they will unravel themselves because of their ego and their temper."
    "But what of us?"
    "We do not matter, just like any fear, we do not even need to exist to effect our enemies, we just need them to think we exist..."

    February 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      It's the identical strategy we used to win the cold war with Russia. Once we forget history, it repeats itself.


      February 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • charity ball

      ...was Osama just a boogeyman, a cartoon, a poster child for government(US) sponsored terrorism catalytic to swaying public opinion in favor of capitalistic oil money war mongering...I mean a goat herder in a cave with a bath towel on his head
      and a laptop orchestrated and managed one of the most spectacle attacks since pearl harbor..........I mean talk about central casting and Bush was practically in bed with the bin laden clan and the Saudi elite..........was 9/11 a false flag attack and was the Israeli mossad behind it..........................911misinglinks.com....was osama a cross dresser.........?????????

      February 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  20. FlaPete

    It's a shame someone has to verbally desacrate a memorial meant not as a religious place,but a personal place to remember friends,family members,work mates.Let the dead rest in peace,they're not symbols or tools,let them be.They'll be remembered in a different way,in happier times,that's the way I would want it....

    February 27, 2012 at 8:35 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.