It was the middle of July, and the sun was showing no mercy on Manhattan.
Shaded only by the Freedom Tower, my shoulders were rapidly acquiring a prickly sunburn, yet I still couldn’t feel anything. I was visiting the September 11th memorial for the first time, and instead of being stricken with the unimaginable sense of loss and grief I had expected, I felt nothing at all. I thought something in me must have been broken; that I had woken up that morning with my Empathy Switch set to “off.” I had lived in New York for my entire life: I expected to feel a connection with the victims of terror, some of whom were close to my family or friends. But now, standing on the precipice of the North reflecting pool, where a tower had once stood, I felt nothing. Even in this heat, the bronze parapet of victims’ names was cold to the touch. I couldn’t feel anything, then I felt guilty.
After its opening in 2011, the National September 11 memorial was received with both praise and criticism from New Yorkers and others around the country. Though memorials meant to commemorate loss are built with good intention, designers often erase and amend facets of tragedy in attempts to make monuments palatable to the general public. In the case of the 9/11 memorial, many believe that the unadorned choices of designers were an insult to the American people, victims, and survivors of the 9/11 attacks. In the aftermath of September 2001, New York was united in a profound period of fear and mourning. Years later, however, the monument constructed in place of the Twin Towers was thought to do injustice to their memory.
The blueprint of the monument was simple: Two reflecting pools with waterfalls in the footprints of where the buildings once stood, surrounded by trees. Many believed this plan to be too understated and insincere. The concept was developed by architect Michael Arad in the aftermath of the attack, after winning a controversial nationwide design contest. The monument opened ten years later on September 11th, 2011.
The memorial is an example of “deconstructivist” architecture, or a style that does not adhere to the confines of traditional upright architectural design, leaving room for interpretation. Plaques on the perimeters of the two pools are made of smooth bronze, and have the names of victims inscribed in random orders, excluding those who requested “meaningful adjacencies” (Paumgarten) to others. The memorial’s reflecting pools use negative space in order to demonstrate the clear absence of the towers. Much of the public was displeased with the unembellished concept, especially those who had been calling for the reconstruction of the Towers, noting it as a sign of surrender, were they not reconstructed. On this matter, author Marita Sturken has stated that “[the tower’s] absence has spoken more loudly, and with more resonance, than their presence ever could have” (319).
Those unfamiliar with the New York skyline and its evolution may be hesitant to agree with Sturken, but upon viewing photographs before and after the attack, they would quickly sympathize with her concerns. After the attack, and before the eventual construction of One World Trade Center — built adjacent to where the towers once were — the New York skyline seemed bare, leaving anyone familiar with the city with a feeling of absence.
The on-site memorial, in the opinion of many critics, did nothing to fill or comfort the city’s sense of absence, but rather reinforced it: In an excerpt from a 2002 edition of the New York Times, a local resident stated “It is very difficult to live and work in an area that other people consider a cemetery… This is a place that was vital and wants to be vital again” (Wyatt B4). The towers, once located in a busy area of Manhattan, were a pinnacle of commerce and trade. Abruptly having these buildings (and their in-demand vertical area), subtracted from the New York psyche was alarming. Due to a sense of attachment to the towers and a growing sense of fear, the development of the memorial, as well as its mere existence, was subject to controversy. Though it was not widely liked, the idea of turning Ground Zero into a memorial site arose rather quickly — in the opinion of some, too quickly. In regards to the long construction period, New Yorker Journalist Nick Paumgarten writes: “As long as it took to find and kill Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, it has taken even longer to commemorate the thousands he killed.”
Although I concur with Paumgarten regarding this timeframe, I must disagree with his persuasion that the dead were not commemorated up until the point of construction. America, from the day of the event onward, has been honoring and remembering the dead in a plethora of ceremonies, parades, and funerals. Writer Stacy Otto noted “spontaneously created shrines of such a number and size that the entire city effectively was transformed into the largest public shrine ever erected”(577). These shrines covered the whole expanse of Manhattan. Street corners were covered in flowers, “Missing,” posters, papers that had drifted down from the towers, and signs of personal pain and loss were plastered about the city, exhibiting our human instinct to mourn publicly and openly. In my opinion, mourning is meant to be reactionary and therapeutic, and as exhibited in the aftermath of these attacks; impersonal and formally constructed memorials such as the reflecting pools cannot compare to intimate, sincere, and immediate forms of remembrance.
I believe that the urge to “officially” commemorate tragedy is reflective of America’s longing to share in a collective national identity. By visiting locations of catastrophe, tourists feel that they are at an epicenter of our nation’s history: In the case of Ground Zero, at the provenance of modern patriotism, for better or worse. Given the value placed on mourning in our culture, their interest in the site is understandable.
Though I have previously referred to the sense of absence at the September 11th memorial as a defect, others would dissent, citing this sensation as pertinent in representing absence of the dead. Anne Hilker, in the Journal of American Culture, argues that “memorials of absence evoke a welcome melancholy through an interaction between the individual and a designed environment”(33). Hilker is correct in stating that the “absence” of rhetorical direction is convenient when manufacturing feelings of sadness. Nevertheless, creating melancholy should not be the rhetorical goal of these memorials.
Structures of this sort should tap into feelings of grief already present within a viewing individual or family member to create catharsis, as opposed to fabricating a compulsory and performative melancholy in those who did not previously possess it. Similarly, rather than allowing for passive melancholy in its audience, the objective of the 9/11 memorial should be to commemorate the structure and the people who once dwelled the site, and not their absence. Hilker later continues in her reasoning, stating of the 9/11 memorial: “The viewer inhabits an empty void, a middle passage between before and after, one in the past, the other incomprehensible. The dichotomy is painful”(34). At this point, Hilker and I are at a fundamental antithesis. She is of the belief that good memorials should evoke the sorrowful or the “painful”, while I believe that memorials should be instruments of healing, first and foremost.
In some capacities, the act of memorializing is an act of erasure. To simplify and condense a complicated event into the form of a statue, obelisk, or abstractly shaped hunk of marble is to ignore the multifaceted nature of history, and the toll it takes on its participants. Mass memorials and gravesites rob the dead of their most valuable asset: their humanity. Truthfully, the dead will only truly be remembered by those who knew them. A monument will never encapsulate the way a victim cared for their family or friends, how hard they worked, how they smiled. In this case, the dead will only be remembered by their last day, and the cruelty done unto them. In essence, memorializing our grief in these simple terms seems to be natural, however we must ask if it is ethical. Though the rhetorical work of the National 9/11 Memorial is among the weaker of our monuments, it is a convenient representation of how we as a society grieve. Rather than allowing grief to belong solely to those affected, we itemize, categorize, and personalize grief so it is suitable to us. The way in which we mourn is flawed, but perhaps it is better than not mourning at all.
My thanks to: Foundry, Brooklyn Digital. “National 9/11 Memorial.” National 9/11 Memorial | PWP Landscape Architecture. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.Hilker, Anne. “The Comfort of Melancholy: Understanding the Experience of Absence at American Memorials.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 37, no. 1, America: History &Amp; Life. Otto, Stacy. “A Garden from Ashes: The Post-9/11 Manhattan City-Shrine, the Triangle Fire Memorial March, and the Educative Value of Mourning.”Journal of Social History 47.3 (2014): 573–86. Web. 16 Oct. 16. Paumgarten, Nick. “The Names.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 May 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/16/the-names. Web. 14 Oct. 16 Reuters, Thomson. “9/11: Iconic Images: Photo Gallery.” Reuters. N.p., 9 Sept. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. Sturken, Marita. “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero.”American Ethnologist, vol. 31, no. 3, 1 Aug. 2004, pp. 311–325. JSTOR. Wyatt, Edward. “Some Neighbors Seek Greater Voice on Plans For Sept. 11 Memorial.” New York Times, 19 June 2002, pp. B1–B4.ProQuest.