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. Iqbal Khan

    And watch This expert.....


    February 28, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Reality

      Our War on Terror and Aggression:

      An update (or how we are spending or how we have spent the USA taxpayers’ money to eliminate global terror, horror and aggression)

      The terror and aggression via a Partial and Recent and Not So Recent Body Count

      As the koranic/mosque driven acts of terror and horror continue:

      The Muslim Conquest of India – 11th to 18th century

      ■"The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

      and the 19 million killed in the Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C by Muslims.

      and more recently

      1a) 179 killed in Mumbai/Bombay, 290 injured

      1b) Assassination of Benazir Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh

      2) 9/11, 3000 mostly US citizens, 1000’s injured

      3) The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US troops killed in action, 3,480 and 928 in non combat roles. 102,522 – 112,049 Iraqi civilians killed as of 9/16/2011/, mostly due to suicide bombers, land mines and bombs of various types, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

      4) Kenya- In Nairobi, about 212 people were killed and an estimated 4000 injured; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85.[2]

      5) Bali-in 2002-killing 202 people, 164 of whom were foreign nationals, and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 209 people were injured.

      6) Bali in 2005- Twenty people were killed, and 129 people were injured by three bombers who killed themselves in the attacks.

      7) Spain in 2004- killing 191 people and wounding 2,050.

      8. UK in 2005- The bombings killed 52 commuters and the four radical Islamic suicide bombers, injured 700.

      9) The execution of an eloping couple in Afghanistan on 04/15/2009 by the Taliban.

      10) – Afghanistan: US troops 1,385 killed in action, 273 killed in non-combat situations as of 09/15/2011. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror

      11) The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran.

      12) 38 Russian citizens killed on March 29, 2010 by Muslim women suicide bombers.

      13) The May 28, 2010 attack on a Islamic religious minority in Pakistan, which have left 98 dead,

      14) Lockerbie is known internationally as the site where, on 21 December 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed as a result of a terrorist bomb. In the United Kingdom the event is referred to as the Lockerbie disaster, the Lockerbie bombing, or simply Lockerbie. Eleven townspeople were killed in Sherwood Crescent, where the plane's wings and fuel tanks plummeted in a fiery explosion, destroying several houses and leaving a huge crater, with debris causing damage to a number of buildings nearby. The 270 fatalities (259 on the plane, 11 in Lockerbie) were citizens of 21 nations.

      15 The daily suicide and/or roadside and/or mosque bombings in the terror world of Islam.

      16) Bombs sent from Yemen by followers of the koran which fortunately were discovered before the bombs were detonated.

      17) The killing of 58 Christians in a Catholic church in one of the latest acts of horror and terror in Iraq.

      18) Moscow airport suicide bombing: 35 dead, 130 injured. January 25, 2011.

      19) A Pakistani minister, who had said he was getting death threats because of his stance against the country's controversial blasphemy law, was shot and killed Wednesday, 3/2/2011

      20) two American troops killed in Germany by a recently radicalized Muslim, 3/3/2011

      21) the kidnapping and apparent killing of a follower of Zoraster in the dark world of Islamic Pakistan.

      22) Shariatpur, Bangladesh (CNN 3/30/2011) - Hena Akhter's last words to her mother proclaimed her innocence. But it was too late to save the 14-year-old girl. Her fellow villagers in Bangladesh's Shariatpur district had already passed harsh judgment on her. Guilty, they said, of having an affair with a married man. The imam from the local mosque ordered the fatwa, or religious ruling, and the punishment: 101 lashes delivered swiftly, deliberately in public. Hena dropped after 70 and died a week later.

      23) "October 4, 2011, 100 die as a truck loaded with drums of fuel exploded Tuesday at the gate of compound housing several government ministries on a busy Mogadishu street. It was the deadliest single bombing carried out by the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group in Somalia since their insurgency began. "
      Continued below:
      Other elements of our War on Terror and Aggression:

      -Operation Iraqi Freedom- The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,480 and 928 in non combat roles as of 09/15/2011/, 102,522 – 112,049 Iraqi civilians killed as of 9/16/2011/, mostly due to suicide bombers, land mines and bombs of various types, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

      – Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops 1,385 killed in action, 273 killed in non-combat situations as of 09/15/2011. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed mostly due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror,

      – Sa-dd-am, his sons and major he-nchmen have been deleted. Sa-dd-am's bravado about WMD was one of his major mistakes. Kuwait was saved.

      – Iran is being been contained. (beside containing the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad, that is the main reason we are in Iraq. And yes, essential oil continues to flow from the region.)

      – North Korea is still u-ncivil but is contained.

      – Northern Ireland is finally at peace.

      – The Jews and Palestinians are being separated by walls. Hopefully the walls will follow the 1948 UN accords. Unfortunately the Annapolis Peace Conference was not successful. And unfortunately the recent events in Gaza has put this situation back to “squ-are one”. And this significant stupidity is driven by the mythical foundations of both religions!!!

      – – Fa-na–tical Islam has basically been contained to the Middle East but a wall between India and Pakistan would be a plus for world peace. Ditto for a wall between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      – Timothy McVeigh was exe-cuted. Terry Nichols escaped the death penalty twice because of deadlocked juries. He was sentenced to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole,[3][7] and is incarcerated in ADX Florence, a super maximum security prison near Florence, Colorado. He shares a cellblock that is commonly referred to as "Bombers Row" with Ramzi Yousef and Ted Kaczynski

      – Eric Ru-dolph is spending three life terms in pri-son with no par-ole.

      – Jim Jones, David Koresh, Kaczynski, the "nuns" from Rwanda, and the KKK were all dealt with and either eliminated themselves or are being punished.

      – Islamic Sudan, Dar-fur and So-malia are still terror hot spots.
      – The terror and tor-ture of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait were ended by the proper application of the military forces of the USA and her freedom-loving friends. Ra-dovan Karadzic was finally captured on 7/23/08 and is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war – charges related to the 1992-1995 civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's secession from Yugoslavia.

      The capture of Ratko Mladić: (Serbian Cyrillic: Ратко Младић, pronounced [râtkɔ mlǎːditɕ], born 12 March 1943[1][2]) is an accused war criminal and a former Bosnian Serb military leader. On May 31, 2011, Mladić was extradited to The Hague, where he was processed at the detention center that holds suspects for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).[3] His trial began on 3 June 2011.

      – the bloody terror brought about by the Ja-panese, Na-zis and Co-mmunists was with great difficulty eliminated by the good guys.

      – Bin Laden was executed for crimes against humanity on May 1, 2011

      – Ditto for Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30, 2011

      February 28, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  2. Iqbal Khan

    Watch all three parts and U be the judge, 9-11 was indeed an inside JOB!


    February 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Reality

      Sister and brother Muslims,

      Some 21st century reality:

      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 Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  3. Shane

    IMHO, 9/11 left holes everywhere. It left a hole on Americans' own hearts, it left a hole on the New York City skyline, and it left a huge hole in the families of the victims. The simple fact that the memorial is simply the footprints of the former twin towers speaks volumes about what happened, and how it effected New York and the USA>

    February 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  4. michael

    For the WWII memorials and Vietnam Memorials, soldiers died daily, over a spain of many years on a much larger scale. It would be virtually impossible to group all these soldiers by branch or platoon. The only logical way to organize these names would be by year they died.
    The names on the 911 memorial I feel is different. Their names are with their , friends, co-workers, family. I just dont see that as being disrespectful. but rather the opposite. the memorial gives you even more information about those individuals that died, who they were, where they were. It shows that they were a real person and not just a name on a wall. And it shows the tragedy, that their life was striped from them.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  5. Rachel

    Someone should really read this article before posting...there were so many grammatical errors I could hardly finish the article – I'm surprised CNN!!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  6. Ryan

    Hey Boston University Scholar and author......proofread your article before you post it. I can't wait to read your next book "My on the Lack Meaning in Memorial being today in Americ".

    February 28, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  7. MarkinFL

    You mean they did not design a memorial that appeals to everyone equally? I don't see why they didn't bother to do that. It shouldn't be much more difficult than undoing 9/11.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  8. lorenzo

    It looks like a big drain! there was no thought put into this monument...and quit frankly....i'm tired of hearing about 911 white people didn't take action against terrorism until their white ass got burned....blacks have been terrorized for centuries and NOW....NOW...whites want to do something....speaking on behave of many varied peoples....GET OVER YOURSELVES!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Jack

      Why does everything have to be a race issue? You need to work with people to get past bad things. Hate breeds hate.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Susan

      Weren't blacks killed on 9/11 as well as whites, hispanics, asians, and many others? This is not a racial issue, but an issue of terrorism and the effect it has on all peoples of the world.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  9. Danielle

    My dad was a responder to the 9/11 attacks and I was lucky enough to have him return home. We need to realize this memorial is a place for families and friends to go to so they can morn their loss or losses. Not everyone buried a body after the wreckage was cleared. We're all human a grieve in different ways. My father can't go back to the site for personal reasons because he lost friends that day. It's a place for people to remember, the worst day in New York history and quite possibly United States history.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  10. Jack

    10 years to create a leaky monument. Go America.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  11. Post American

    This is a stupid article. Who whines about a Memorial?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Jack

      Probably the people who find meaning in the memorial.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  12. mrsjs15

    As for the groupings – I like the idea. The memorial IN ITS ENTIRETY salutes the victims, but in reality those victims each formed groups in life as they did in death. Cantor Fitzgerald workers lived a life amoung other CF workers, just as they died amoung them. Same for the victims in the pentagon as well as the first responders who lived, and died, together. Look at the memorial in its entirety and you can see that. They lived, and died, as groups.

    To separate that out and list them, what? alphabetically? numerically? would do nothing but turn the memorial into one long catalogue of deaths.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  13. The Jackdaw

    Rich people are not unethical but unethical people tend to become rich.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  14. mrsjs15

    "there is flowing over them"
    "first impression is also auditory, though here it loud"
    "But I was upended by what came to feel, at least to m, like a hyper-segmentation..."

    Really? English 101. Journalism 210. How about some PROOF READING?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  15. JanO

    Isn't it wonderful that we don't all have to think like you do. I am at peace when I visit the memorial. I stroll, I breathe in the air, I run my hands over the names, I sit. Children can play there not having to know death yet but able to learn bits about it, while seeing their folks model the honor and respect we all feel. Enough sacred tears, let's joyfully honor our people, not whine over them.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  16. Peter

    Does the author even PROOFREAD his work. God. I found a ridiculous error in the 2nd paragraph.
    "There are the granite walls, though in the New York memorial there is flowing over them"
    There is..... what? flowing over them? Amazing. They put this on CNN.com? Really? My kid could proofread better.
    Standards have dropped.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Meg

      I thought the same thing.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • anonymous

      or maybe we should just take in the message of the article and not focus on such minute details

      February 28, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  17. jon

    My father and I visited the memorial last November. We both thought it was very moving, and it was good to see the new tower taking shape over the vast emptiness of the former WTC. My only contempt is that it's a shame that it's taking so long to build the museum . If it wasn't for the bureaucracy,than everything would've been completed years ago.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  18. My opinion

    They grouped the names into families, friends, etc. so that families can mourn as if they were at a family plot, no?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  19. spider

    With all respect to families... the memorial is sufficient, there are a LOT of other problems going on in this country right now that needs attention! FOCUS people, economy, fuel costs, healthcare, disappearing middle class, etc!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  20. jack cook

    Obviously we already know whos responsible for that day. Best thng you can do is just memorize the losses of the family and keep in mind the power of our governments corruption

    February 28, 2012 at 9:12 am |
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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.