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. Wrenn

    For us... here.

    There will always be a hole in the sky.

    I'm sorry you just don't get it, Stephen.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  2. David M

    Apparently, proof reading is not a concern for journalist these days.

    Anyway, I understand what the writer is saying about comparing this memorial to the Viet Nam memorial. But they are different. They represent two totally different events in history from two different eras, and I think making the 9/11 memorial like the VN memorial would be a mistake. The VN memorial is not the template for all other memorials. Let each memorial speak for itself.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  3. Jessica

    Did no one proofread this article? C'mon CNN, it's on your front page.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  4. sandra

    "12:18 p.m. — the time when the site was first attacked"


    February 28, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Andy N

      ummm...calm down 12:18 is when the first bomb went off in 1993....read slower

      February 28, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Andrew

      Read and you would realize that he is talking about hte occurence in 1993.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  5. Dearest Puppy

    9-11 was an inside job. Ask any Alex Jones.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  6. Say What?

    Wow, comparing of the Wall vs 9/11........are you sure you're a scholar? Understand the differents between the two icons and the reasons for their built, you're just completely lost

    February 28, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  7. John

    Stephen Prothero = STUPID

    February 28, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  8. John


    February 28, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  9. Josh

    The 9/11 Memorial in NYC, is more of a memorial for the buildings (the World Trade Center) by their city, than for the people who died. For example, one of its prime design features, is the footprints of the buildings. More people miss the buildings against the NYC skyline, than miss the people who died.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  10. lilyq

    What do you expect from a place where God is now allowed.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • OMG

      Treating these victims as if they were heroes is just an excuse to ignore what motivated these folks to kill them in the first place which is sacredness...religion and God. The memorial should remind visitors of the tragedy of religion and its fanatics and not cover that up in some false sense of sacredness.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Josh

      IMHO, it is good that God is now allowed there.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Nick

      The tragedy of religion? It is not religion's fault if evil men wish to use it as a platform for their own warmongering ends. If I go to war for natural resources, I don't blame the natural resources. In any case, we were (are) a target more for our capitalism and materialism than our Christian religions.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  11. FactChecker

    Having room for people to leave things is important. I've only seen the Oklahoma City memorial but the notes and things that mourners leave there are very touching. I felt their pain.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  12. The Old Wolf

    Why in the name of Ella Wheeler Wilcox would the pompous opinion of one effete moron be given such credence as to even be published? Ground Zero was sacred even when it was still a pile of rubble, and will always be so.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  13. James

    I went and had a few issues, #1 secruity is just silly over-done. Its been over 10 years, and its STILL NOT COMPLETED. Even NY Police are not allowed in with weapons, which is really silly. Security thinks themselves akin to secret service, when in actuallity they are a small step above a mall cop. Heaven forbid you lose your ticket between one of the numerous ticket checks, because people are just waiting to sneak in here, and a ticket is going to stop them. The gift shop when you exit was a bonus... real classy..

    February 28, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • Josh

      The 9/11 Memorial is to remember the WTC towers, and replace their draw for tourists and their tourists' dollars to lower Manhattan. For that purpose, I think the gift shop is quite appropriate.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  14. Henry

    The memorial is surrounded by constructions so it is in fact, noisy and unfinished. To make a comparison to the vietnam war memorial in its solemnity is as best, premature. I work on the 26th floor of tower 7 and each day, looking down at the memorial in the mid of the vast activities of cranes, trucks, and thousands of workers welding, hammering, coming and going next to lines of visitors lingering at the water falls, I couldn't wait until all is done so the feeling of rest and true reflection can begin.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  15. Y

    This piece is written so poorly. I have visited the memorial and found to be touching and solemn.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • John

      YES! They need to fire some of their PATHETIC, so called writers.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 28, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • MrDC

      Science and reason change more.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • Mirosal

      2 hands at work will accomplish much more than a thousand hands clasped in prayer.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      Yeah, 9/11 was a aith based initiatiive.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Tom

      Typical religious statment; one of fear, danger. I keep wondering where is one based on love. Love of God and love of neighbor. A statement of fear is designed for control, domination, lack of free will and thinking.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things

      February 28, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • just sayin

      Tom what is not to love, love of God, love of children, love of creation, and love of prayer. When we look to the unloving your name comes up.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • Mirosal

      You do NOT need any kind of 'god' or deity to love someone. I have 3 children, and I know how to love them without any guidance from a magical mystical invisible sky-pilot.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • OMG

      If the terrorist were atheist, then there would be no memorial. So you might want to rethink your position.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • John

      Actually... science & reason have lead to ALL of our problems. And... reason will never free us. Have a nice day.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Are you Amish? Science and technology have so vastly improved your life over that of your grand-parents, it is difficult to even conceive of the full scope.
      Reason has freed you from predation by animals, worrying about surviving the winter, enduring the pain of frequent infant mortality, and from suffering countless formerly deadly diseases.
      Reason has allowed us to touch the stars and begin to comprehend the vastness and grandeur that is our universe.
      Reason has given us the gifts of instant, global communication and rapid transportation – the twin marvels that are negating the curse of Babel that has kept humanity from cooperating.
      Blind faith is not a virtue. Living and dying based on any proposition lacking evidence is intellectual apathy. Such thinking will ensure that humanity never rises from the muck and mire of supersti/tion as people will be too lost fighting over mythological minutiae to begin the crucial first step towards peace. Dogmatic faith negates the proposition that one's adversary is not a villain.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Andrew

      "Prayer changes things

      Lmao hold up! Explain to me how this is "proven" you don't have crap to back that statment up. And "Atheism is not .... for other living things" ... real Christian dude, real Christian.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  17. Aussie Tourist

    My family and I visited the 911 memorial in January this year. Yes, there were tourists. Yes the surfaces were stark and the placements haunting. But I did feel that it was a sacred place, especially so because so many people of diverse nationalities and faiths perished on that day. For me, standing there almost felt like an intrusion, as if I had inadvertently stumbled upon a private moment of profound grief. We find the sacred not so much in architecture or materials, but in the knowledge of what happened. In realising that I was standing in a place where so many suffered, and to where so many come who still suffer, moved me to prayer.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:25 am |
  18. Jeff S.

    As horrible of a day that 9/11 was, It was a small price to pay to open the US's eyes on how serious and unprepared we were as a nation for the likes of fanatical terrorism. Arrogance? Complacency? whatever it was, they could of dumped 4 planes into nuclear facilities strategically placed around the United states that could of crippled us for years. Not trivializing what did happen, it could of been much much worse.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  19. John

    The adjacencies are what makes it special for me. When you lose as many co-workers as we did at Cantor, the grouping of the names of co-workers who you will never see again helps takes me back to Sept 10th and earlier better days.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:33 am |
  20. Chris

    'Haven't been there yet, but our inconsiderate nature can make it difficult to design a somber memorial. Part of the FDR memorial in D.C. are statues in an unemployment line from the Great Depression; stupid parents let their kids get an early start, go to the front and take their vacation snapshot. Likewise, few people should wish themselves to be shown in a massive memorial to the dead, especially smiling, but whatever.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:15 am |
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