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. jayman419

    I haven't been to the memorial in New York. But I have visited the Wall in D.C.

    The first thing you notice about the place, which is designed as an L-shaped walkway, is the former soldiers standing guard at each end, the mountains of protesters' signs heaped near trash cans which they simply will not allow you to carry inside, and the former soldiers who patrol the walkway to make sure that items left as a tribute are not disturbed.

    Then it's only after you proceed down the walkway, and you feel and see the wall growing and towering over you, that you understand the profound meaning the Vietnam memorial holds for so many people.

    Even the WWI rotunda and the WWII memorial in DC don't compare to the Wall. The author basically took the most sacred memorial on American soil as the basis of comparison, and nothing will measure up against it.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:03 am |
  2. SpiderCNN

    We owe it to the victim of the 911 to properly investigate this event, and identify who really was responsible for it.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • US Soldier

      Oh come on... really? Wow... i can't stand conspiratorists.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  3. Chris

    I have never heard one good comment about the memorial from anyone but New Yorkers. It isn't any secret that New Yorkers wanted this memorial as a monument to themselves. They made sure that no one else in America shared in the national tragedy. At the time, they made sure everyone understood that this happened to New York, not America. In the end, the memorial is viewed as dismal. There is no uplifting "Phoenix" from the ashes promise of hope to it.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  4. I used to be a christian

    This memorial is not for you Mr. Prothero, go away, keep your opinions to yourself and let us mourn our dead.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • doug

      Exactly! It is not the memorial that disrespects the victims of 9/11. It is articles like this from people that like seeing their name and picture on CNN. I agree with the post below. CNN finds this worth publishing???

      February 28, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  5. mbal

    Proofread. Edit. Something.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  6. Frank

    I very much disagree with this piece. I also visited the 9/11 memorial and was deeply moved. I am not sure what Mr. Prothero expects and don’t understand why he even attempts to make comparisons of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the 9/11 memorial. (No memorial should be considered more important, but the events of Vietnam and 9/11 are very different.) The 9/11 attacks took place in one day in the biggest metropolitan city in the U.S. , they were viewed in real time by the whole world and they resulted in an almost instant change in the American way of life. The memorial, therefore, is big and will be visited by millions each year. Yes, that will result in a “tourist feel” but I think the designers did an outstanding job in also making the experience extremely moving and yes, sacred too! Mr. Prothero should go back to the ivory tower and find something else academic to write about. I’m surprised CNN finds this news worthy.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Deryk Houston

      I don't see any change in America. Sadly they continue on threatening and bullying the world and they haven;t learned a thing from this event. They are blundering into one country after another and can;t understand where the hate comes from. Now they are inflicting misery and death on the Iranian people.People are starting to die because they can;t get cancer medicines. (Blocked because of their dual use). It is insane policy and you can expect to get further "blow back" because of it.
      By the way.....I agree with the writer of the article.......although he needs to watch his editing.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  7. Anon

    Even if I agreed with this article, the abysmal writing would be distracting. As it is, it makes a bad message worse.

    "The is flowing over them," "though here it loud," "m," a five line paragraph of one sentence with at least six clauses and zero commas, "Marine" instead of Marines... sorry to be the grammar Nazi, but you should do better if you're writing for national news.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • STP

      Yea what the eff?!?!?! Did they outsource this article and put the author’s name on it? This article should be pulled down and edited. How embarrassing.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:39 am |
  8. Martin

    Copy edit.
    Copy edit.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  9. zaphod

    their blood is on the bush's hands.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • US Soldier

      You're a fool... to think that one man is capable of all of this mess and disaster lifts the president to a place of godship. He's just a man, and a weak one at that. The president is a puppet. Was designed to be that way and always will be.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  10. jamesnyc

    As some who was down there on 9/11/2001 I don't need a memorial. I remember the day far more than I would like. As a person who used to work there the only memorial I will ever need is what is left of the bronze sphere that used to be in the plaza fountain. It used to look very solid. Now it looks like it got attacked by a giant can opener. It expresses my devastation and trauma perfectly.
    Keep in mind that in the mourning process, hopefully the need for an overly large memorial won't be as necessary. Hopefully people will heal and find a way to put that horrible day in the past.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm |


    February 27, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • swannee

      Seriously dude...let the caps lock go.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  12. AGuest9

    9/11 showed the ugly, bitter side of religion. Keep it out of the memorial.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Then, again, so do these blogs, every day.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  13. pdiddy

    What? the 9/11 memorial is very nice... What a stupid article...

    February 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  14. TommyTT

    Baloney. When the Viet Nam memorial was planned, there was a tremendous outcry about its supposed flaws and lacks and failures, too. That's why the insipid statue was glued on at one end. marring the design. The 9/11 memorial is enormously powerful in its own way. Leave it be.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  15. Reality

    Only those directly affected by 9/11 should be writing reviews about the 9/11 memorial. He definitely should not be commenting on things sacred to those families whose loved ones were killed or maimed on 9/11. Prothero cannot even make up his mind whether he is an atheist, agnostic or a New England WASP

    One assumes he knows a lot about Islam since he is a Professor of Religion at Boston U. We would be better served if he would expand on the following:

    Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:

    The global Sunni-Shiite blood feud (e.g. Syria) and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Reality, tune in for once in your life. What happened to the twin towers could have happened anywhere in the USA. The memorial is for and from ALL of us because it affected everyone throughout the world.


      February 28, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  16. Kevin B

    Sacred is not what you see there, but what you bring there, in your heart.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  17. steama

    Too much bla, bla, bla, psychobabble crap regarding the 9/11 memorial. Lame article by Stephen Prothero who is definitely a narrow-minded twit.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  18. Paul

    I have visited the memorial twice and I came away with a totally diferent view than the writer.

    1. The waterfalls do create a "roar"...but this "noise" was a constant white noice that actually blocks out the sounds of NYC. You did not hear the horns, sirens, traffic, etc. It instead gave it a sense of quiet.
    2. The groupings of the names I found very moving. They were placed with a purpose, crews of airlines, people from the same office, cousins and siblings, fire teams, etc.
    3. The inclusion of 'and unborn child" reminds us that these were civilians. Ordinary people going about their business on that day. A reminder that a somewhere a family lost not only a daughter and wife, but lost their grandchild and child.
    I am sure that my response is personal as well, but I am glad that I paid my respects.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  19. kc

    I disagree. I went to the 9/11 memorial in November and was deeply moved. The only thing I wish had been completed was the museum. Besides that, I felt it was an astounding memorial to those who lost their lives.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  20. Landon

    New word in the English dictionary, "m."

    12th paragraph.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • Paul

      2nd paragraph:
      There are the granite walls, though in the New York memorial there is flowing over them.

      What is flowing over them?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
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