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. Gina

    The comparison is unfair and unfounded. Everyone mourns differently and the site of 9/11 is reflective of the enormity and diversity of the tragedy itself. You went looking for something to write an opinion piece about, instead you should have gone looking within yourself and what that day meant to you. Do people go and smile for their cameras, yes, but at least they go and they remember. It is exactly what you make of it, sit and reflect and if you feel the need to trace names, take pictures or weep for the lost, the objective has been achieved. To get you there and to get you thinking, whether you agree with it's presentation or not.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  2. moe smith

    Opinions and buttholes...

    the memorial is just fine. get over yourself.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  3. chief

    there isnt a comparison.... one is honor, the other is rememberence .... the vietnam memorial are those who fought and died for the country, their contribution was a conscious action and the result was their sacrifice............ 9/11 .... people were killed because they went to work that day, it didnt matter who they were, they were murdered..... fighting for a cause and being murdered are 2 different things..... we should honor the soldiers always...... we should remember the victoms

    February 28, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Jenn

      Well said! You hit the nail on the head!!

      February 28, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  4. r.thomas

    Sacredness is in the heart of the beholder. Perhaps sacred is being confused with intimacy, which is more the feeling conveyed at the Vietnam Memorial in DC. The sheer scale of the 9/11 memorial denies intimacy. I believe the large scale of 9/11 conveys the large scale of the event and the amount of loss. While I was not in NYC at the time of 9/11, I recall watching the towers fall, and even on TV the vastness of the event, and the huge edifices collapsing, ran chills up my spine, and terror for those in the building and on the ground.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  5. Deb

    After 9/11, we thought nothing would ever be normal again. Sadly, we were wrong.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  6. LOL @ domestic "news"

    I don't know what is more ridiculous and laughable: this horridly banal and miserably written article from a religious scholar pontificating on the lack of a "sacred" feel to a memorial or the uneducated and completely uninformed responses to the article speculating on faith, religion and the motives of terrorists. American news media at it's finest right here.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  7. Dan

    Um, if you're going to trash the monument, I would expect you to come up with something a little more profound than objecting to the grouping of names. I mean really? To compare it to the Vietnam Memorial is absurd, most notably because many more people died in Vietnam, and the more "inimate" exhibit feels VAST when you consider that the very large wall is composed of tiny names. That feeling of impact would be lacking in the same type of exhibit for 9/11. Yes, we are memorializing those who died, but we are also aknowledging a gaping wound to the country that is still gushing. In that sense, I find the memorial nearly perfect, only I wish it conveyed more hope that it would eventually heal.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Dan

      Heheh. "Intimate." One would think CNN was editing my posts.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  8. Chris

    For some reason Prothero thinks this is about him... about what he gets out of visiting the site... About "Seeing himself?". This memorial is about remembering what happened that day and all that was lost. The Vietnam war was a multi-year event appropriately remembered by its own memorial... 9/11 occurred in a single day... Completly different... The overall war on terror is what needs to be recognized in relation to this day but this memorial is about that day!

    I guess opinions like this are what makes the world what it is!

    Can't get over how no one at CNN proof-reads anything... what a mess

    February 28, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  9. cra

    "... though in the New York memorial there is flowing over them.."
    What does that even mean?

    "... first impression is also auditory, though here it loud: water crashing..."
    Here it loud?

    "... It [the 9/11 memorial] didn’t evoke nature. It didn’t evoke death."
    Oh? And how does the rectangular wall [Vietnam Memorial] evoke nature to you? Or death?

    "There is no similar confrontation at the 9/11 Memorial — no reckoning."
    So, from the Vietnam memorial, you felt somehow responsible or involved in the deaths of all those Soldiers.
    Soldiers, assigned by your country, to go and fight.
    You didn't feel that at the 9/11 Memorial?
    Probably because that wasn't the intent of the design.
    Would you have preferred a politicized design commenting on the public policies that, in theory, brought about the attacks?

    "I also noticed unborn children memorialized alongside their mothers — a feature absent from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."
    Huh? Did we have pregnant moms in battle in Vietnam whose children's names should've been on The Wall?

    "...was upended by what came to feel, at least to m, like a hyper-segmentation..."
    Well, thank God "M" feels that way.

    "... the first order of business at the 9/11 Memorial seems to me to be tourism."
    Because they discourage you from throwing stuff into the water?
    On what do you base that statement?
    Because you saw tourists there?
    And you don't see tourists at The Wall?

    "...I wanted more of the sacred and less of the profane."
    Strongly-worded opinion with no supporting arguments.
    Written poorly and obviously with no budget for an editor or concern for the message.


    February 28, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Ray Zucolli

      Cra, I had to self edit. "Water", "me" and "here it 'IS' loud". Clearly no proofreading done. But I agree fully with your statements. SP is comparing completely dissimilar events, different era's and unequal time frames. I visited the 911 back in December as one of those 'tourists'. Hunderds of us were quetly reading, browsing, and reflecting. I had emotion. He had a deadline.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Mark

      What else can one say but EXCELLENT POST!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  10. Joe T.

    A whole lot of words about nothing. Also, who is the editor here? There are some horrible mistakes that anybody who is employed as an editor should be able to spot.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  11. Ken

    Lets not forget that the reason you might hear people crying around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is there was no memorial for that war the the longest time. Soldiers from that war were villified by the media and liberals. Heck many such groups even spoke out against wasting money on "The Wall". What you hear around the that location is 30-40 years of pent up anger, frustration, and grief finally being released as friends, families, and loved ones are finally remembered for who they were (and not the demons some made them out to be). In another 20 years or so, all those who lived during the time of the Vietnam War and knew the brave souls who fought in that war will themselves pass on. The hushed tones will fade away, the sobbing will cease ... and the perceived differences will also disappear.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  12. Neeneko

    'Sacred' and "Profane" are mini-goodwins.. they have zero objective meaning and serve purely as devices for a speaker to elevate their personal aesthetics to something more fundamental. This whole piece could have been summarized 'this did not resonate with me, but it can't be me, so there must be something mystically wrong with the thing'.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Just Say'in

      And he’s right. It’s very disappointing.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • runjackrun

      I went to see The Memorial in January and was quite surprised about how much the security area seemed liked checking in at an airport. But once I got inside the memorialized area it was deafening quit, which I thought was proper. If people could leave momento's by a name the place would become a trash site and the powers that be would have to clean it up everyday and dispose of it so that other people could see The Walls clean. I think the way the names are arranged is right. A lot of thought went into building and organizing The Wall. If someone didn't get the feeling they wanted to get perhaps it's something missing in that person and not at the World Trade Center Memorial.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  13. Aspen

    I agree with the author, if you make something a huge spectacle then you get tourists and not mourners. If that is what they were looking for then they got it. Having a pay museum and all the flash, they really made a new "old faithful" as opposed to a sacred site. However an area that is so based on money and style, creating a place that is quiet to reflect is far from understood.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  14. Brian

    The grouping of the names makes a lot of sense to those of us who lost friends on 9-11. I still remember joking with my friends when they worked in the north and south tower that they should try and get desks facing each other.

    Goes to show that people will complain about anything, even things they have no vested interest in.

    I guess given the level of poor writing, we should expect such an overly simplistic thought from the author.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  15. J. Simon

    Great piece. Does nobody at CNN check for spelling and grammar?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Just Say'in

      Kettle meets pot.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:55 am |

    Divisive? Huh? Much thought and sentiment went into the design to keep friends, colleagues and siblings together.....how on earth is that divisive?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  17. Reality

    Only those directly affected by 9/11 should be writing reviews about the 9/11 memorial. Prothero definitely should not be commenting on things sacred to those families whose loved ones were killed or maimed on 9/11. He 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 28, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • TheWiz71

      As for your comment that only family members of 9/11 victims should be making statements about the memorial – the whole point of the memorial is to provide a focus for the remembrances of the American people as a whole – his point is that the memorial as it stands divides rather than unites. Yes, the viewpoints of 9/11 families should have a certain priority, but they ought not to have exclusive rights – the whole country was effected, after all.
      As for your blathering on about the evils of Islam – hate begets hate, for starters. If you are a Christian, you would do well to remember the words of Jesus – "bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you". Besides which, your venom has little or nothing to do with the topic of the column itself. So, keep it to yourself.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Reality

      JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

      Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

      Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

      Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

      Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

      So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  18. John

    Could any inanimate object ever be a fitting memorial for a living person? What a silly statement. Of course it could never be. But its all we can do.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  19. Dean

    Bad reporting and bad grammer...CNN maintaining its usual standards.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • John

      There's irony here somewhere.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • The6thsense

      See the irony I do

      February 28, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Just Say'in

      @ Dean
      And yet you keep coming back, who is the greater fool?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  20. Kyle

    How on earth do you find the “meaningful adjacencies” divisive? The victim's friends and family wanted the names listed this way. Parents wanted their children grouped together. Rescue workers wanted their comrades grouped together. The designers worked very hard with the families to arrange the names in a meaningful way. Divisive? Hardly.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:23 am |
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