Sunday, September 11, 2011

Memory and Absence in New York

Rendering of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City

Today in New York they are holding the solemn dedication of the 9/11 Memorial, ten years after the events that changed the face of Manhattan and our entire national culture.  I have often polled our incoming students about what events in their own lifetime made them aware of history unfolding around them, and 9/11 has been the dominant answer.  It quickly became the date that molds the flow of contemporary history. We live in the year 10 ATT (After the Twin Towers); Ground Zero became the year 0. 

The New York Memorial itself has a history; it marks the literal spot where the attacks occurred.  That space needed to be cleared of human remains and vast piles of debris, and a single design able to meet the incredible challenge of commemorating the events had to be found.  Memorials are quite often clich├ęs in marble, but the sheer human complexity of 9/11 pushed everyone well past any notion of an obelisk, a sculptured allegory, or a solemn list of names on a colorless plaque.  We all know what war memorials look like.  But we are still learning how to commemorate the victims of terrorism.

The first step seems to be to define them as victims, not martyrs.  Martyrdom, historically, means the "witnessing" of an authority or a morality that goes beyond the historical moment and the powers that be. In the Christian tradition, the spectacle of martyrdom recounted in countless lives of the saints conveys a kind of spiritual machismo: the martyr, when given a choice between submitting to Roman authority or obeying the word of God, freely chooses a gruesome death in testimony to the superior truth and even happiness inherent in keeping faith with God. According to St. Augustine, they contend "for the truth as far as the death of their bodies, so that the true religion might be made known and fiction and falsehood convicted" (City of God, 8.27). Augustine imagined after the Resurrection of All Flesh, the martyrs will have their dismembered bodies reconstituted, but with the scars still visible where their limbs were hacked off. There will be no ugliness in this, for in these "glorious wounds" there will be "no deformity, only dignity, and the beauty of their valor will shine forth" (City of God, 22.19). 

But the civilians of 9/11 did not bravely choose to die in some cosmic, spiritual drama.  They were simply going to work, trying to pay bills, trying not to get fired. Had they been given a moment to choose their deaths, to proclaim the cause for which they were dying, to feel the eyes of the world upon them as they performed some memorable act of endurance, then the horror of their deaths could be imagined—at least in retrospect, in our tribal narratives—as somehow sacred.  But instead, they were caught suddenly, quite unprepared, and died unconsoled and miserably.  Instead of the sacred drama of voluntary martyrdom, they died obscenely, vaporized or blindly choking, at best choosing to jump instead of burn. Even the language of martyrdom had been preempted by their attackers.

No wonder it has always been easier to commemorate the first responders who willingly ran into those collapsing buildings than those many who just died. The civic heroism of the policemen and firemen is of a kind we can readily appreciate. It comes almost as a relief, wiping away the horrific implications of being a victim, where there is no option to embrace a death with meaning.  And it is with just that unpredictable, explosive, all-consuming death that terrorism threatens us.  Death without dignity, preparation, confession, or choice.  Death reduced to its absolute and meaningless finality.  That is why an act of terrorism makes us all feel so utterly unsafe.  War, with all its horrors, seems a hundred times preferable to victimhood.

But the Monument must remind, warn, and admonish: all meanings of its root verb, the Latin monere.  And the designers have created a most astounding—and to me, effective—solution.  The Twin Towers will be commemorated in their literal absence from the skyline of New York City, which they dominated when they towered confidently over lower Manhattan's financial district (that is why they were the targets after all).  Now, the negative space of their footprints is deeply embedded on the site, where two vast square wells gape to receive the flowing waters that pour down into a pool, then disappear into another square hole at the center.  Gone.  This kinetic monument conveys both ablution and disappearance.  Around the square rims of the two pits are inscribed the names of the victims, distributed according to a complex algorithm, like the one that threaded them together on that day.

Around these vast square chasms will grow a grove of trees, redefining this space as one of contemplation, recreation, and escape from the concrete warren of the city. This seems a fitting complement to the structured absence of the towers.  We fight death with life, urban devastation with green spaces, darkness with sunlight. In place of the mechanical drone of cabs and cars, there will be the cascading roar of living water, to mark out what this place has become for us all: a watershed.

—Richard Armstrong


  1. Most eloquent, Dr. Armstrong. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your words on a day when many are reflecting and searching for perspective. - T.J.

  3. 9/11-- especially this year, especially because I had business in New York-- reminds me to be afraid of becoming a victim. It's an arresting feeling, but also an empty one, because what am I going to do about it, really?

    Now there's an arresting and empty memorial, and I think I'll go there. I've never been to Ground Zero for all the times I'm visited the city because I felt that it did not have much to do with me. Now I feel a little differently, living nearby and almost cancelling a visit because I was reminded to be afraid. So I think maybe if I go there I'll be able to step inside my own feelings somehow, and do something, because I've just realized how much more work I have to do in coming to terms with this "event" (see, I don't even know how to talk about it). ...? I don't have a good place for this thought to wind up.

    Dr. A, I really appreciate your perspective and interpretation. I'll be thinking about it when I visit. Awesome post.