Thursday, March 15, 2012


Went today to see the National September 11th Memorial, the closest I've been to the footprints of the World Trade Center since, well, since they were still standing. Even on a grey March weekday it was full of tourists, so it took me a while to appreciate the intelligence of the design, and to put my finger on what disturbed me about it.
As you may know, the basements of the twin towers have been hollowed out. You see nothing as you approach them at first, and then, as you are stunned at the size of the footprints, you see water falling over the edge, cascading down their sides, and then into a deeper, smaller hole. Around the top are carved names of the lost. The falling water flows from what seems a calm still pool around the top, through little channels gently reminiscent of the World Trade Center, the cataract below as unexpected and disproportionate as were the attacks of 2001.

But what took me aback was the sound. Memorials are usually quiet, even silent. Architects' drawings and newspaper photographs are too. I was expecting at most a gentle sussing sound. This is more like the rush of Niagara Falls. There is no resignation here, no hopeful return to tranquility, to quiet mourning, at least not straightforwardly. The thing that immediately came to my shocked mind as I looked at the billowing sheets of water crashing down, was the collapse of the Towers. And in the smaller darker hole, into which the water disappeared invisibly 
except for occasional skeins of foam, I was reminded of falling bodies! What were they thinking? Surely conjuring up these memories wasn't what anyone wanted to do here. Or is that just what they were thinking. Even when the trees are in leaf this won't be a calm place. It will revive traumatic memories and fears - the entrance to the visitor's center looks from afar like a piece of broken building and up close reflects the nearby skyscrapers at scary angles as if they were falling behind you - not putting memories to rest but making them shared, public.

This is not just a memorial to the dead but an expression of resolve. It doesn't help us look away from tragedy, or beyond it. It doesn't help us simply to make our peace with it. It looks right into the heart of tragedy and comes out more determined. We will not forget. Lives lost, while leaving voids in our lives which can never be filled, call us to go on.

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