I don’t understand memorials and monuments. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.
I have the good fortune of having lead a peaceful life. Other than my parents, no one really close to me has died. Perhaps if I’d experienced more tragedy, I’d understand people’s reactions better. What I’m saying is that I’m perfectly willing to admit that I just don’t get it. Still, there are things that just seem wrong.
I remember hearing many years ago that someone was proposing a memorial for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, which is where he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968. Part of the planned memorial was a laser beam, projected across the hotel grounds, that followed the path of the bullet that killed King.
To my way of thinking, this was completely the wrong way to honor Dr. King. The shooting at the Lorraine hotel had nothing to do with who King was and what he stood for. King did his great work in countless churches and gatherings, in marches and speeches and discussions with leaders all over the country. That’s what was important to Martin Luther King, and that’s what we should remember about him. That’s the part of his life we should honor.
It’s not that King’s assassination is unimportant. It says a lot about America that we had a guy like Dr. King in this country, and that he was murdered. But his murder wasn’t about him, it was about our relationship to him. It was about what other people did to him. Specifically, it was about what one man with a gun did to him. These people wanted to build a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, but it seemed to me they were building a monument to to the accomplishments of James Early Ray.
(The Lorraine Hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which seems like a much better much better way to honor Dr. King and his work.)
I got to thinking about all this after reading Scott Greenfield’s brilliant post about the controversy over building a Mosque near Ground Zero. Scott argues that Ground Zero and the location of the Mosque are worlds apart by Manhattan standards, and that people who don’t actually know the area from personal experience shouldn’t be telling folks in Manhattan what to do. In particular, he’s not impressed by the 9/11 families’ claims that the former site of the twin towers is “hallowed ground.”
(Scott also doesn’t like the phrase “Ground Zero,” and frankly neither do I. Ground zero is technical slang for the location on the Earth’s surface directly below an aerial explosion such as nuclear bomb. Its use for the site of the World Trade Center towers has always struck me as incorrect.)
I felt bad for people who lost loved ones in the terrors of 9/11, but I’ve found the whole “9/11 families” phenomenon a little disturbing. Again, as with the proposed memorial for Martin Luther King, it’s because the 9/11 families were brought together and united as a group by something that had nothing to do with them or the people they lost.
(Many of them would have known groups of the other families before 9/11 because their loved ones worked together. That does have to do with who they are and what they were about, so it’s not what I’m talking about here.)
After 9/11, I’m sure the families of the victims naturally came together in sharing their grief. But somewhere along the way, I think that unity got turned toward ends that were somewhat political. I don’t know where it started. Maybe reporters asked the family members for their opinions so many times that they selected people to speak for them, and those people became leaders. For some of them, it became a purpose in life, a reason to go on. But I’m sure other people saw that any claim of a connection to 9/11 was a way to draw attention and political power to themselves.
Then there was all the money. The September 11th Fund collected donations and eventually provided $500 million to the families, but that’s small change compared to the $7 billion they got from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The latter was a government program, and it was far from a simple act of charity. Among other things, it was a bailout of sorts for the airlines whose planes were hijacked: In accepting money from the fund, families agreed not to sue the airlines. Naturally, the airlines wanted this fund to be as large as possible to discourage lawsuits. You can bet they lobbied Congress hard for this.
Lawyers scrambled to represent the families. Politicians learned that they could get publicity by calling for more compensation for the families. Pundits attracted attention to themselves by commenting on how terrible it all was.
When people started talking about a memorial at the site of the towers, I began to get the same feeling I had from the proposed Martin Luther King memorial. The people in the towers on 9/11 were insurance brokers and underwriters, bankers, tourists, car rental agents, lawyers, accountants, computer technicians, doctors, travel agents, and restaurateurs. They were husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children. They had no idea 9/11 was coming, they had no plans to make a sacrifice or take a risk that day. So why honor them as if they did? Why unite them as if they had a common cause?
(This doesn’t apply to the first responders — police officers, firefighters, and EMTs — who showed up to help. They risked their lives to help others. This was a cause they all shared.)
If we’re going to honor the victims of 9/11, we should honor them for who they chose to be, not for what Al Qaeda made them. We shouldn’t turn the site of the World Trade Center into a monument to the vision of Osama bin Laden.
I’m probably projecting my own values into the situation too much, but I can’t help feeling that the 9/11 families have had their grieving process hijacked by the media, the politicians, and to some extent the American people. I’m not saying that their grief is unnatural or fake, but part of the grieving process is socially constructed. We do some things because people expect it of us, and when 300 million people are aware of your loss, you’ve got to feel some pressure.
The reverence people have for the site of the twin towers really surprises me. I don’t really get it. People talk about preserving the footprint of the towers, and not building anything there. It all just seems so technical and dry. I don’t understand the attachment to the location. I can understand why the location is painful and emotional and maybe cathartic to visit for people who lost a loved one, but I can’t understand the reverence.
I’ve tried to imagine how I’d feel if, say, my wife was killed in a car accident. How would I react to the location of the accident? I think I’d hate driving past the site, and would probably avoid it for a few years. But I wouldn’t revere it. It wouldn’t be hollowed ground for me.
And yet… When my father died, my wife and I took his ashes back to Kentucky where he was born. The last few hours of driving were off the interstate, on state roads winding through the hills and farms of eastern Kentucky, and I became accutely aware of passing small crosses that had been placed on the side of the road. I assume these were markers of locations where someone had been killed in a car accident.
I can kind of understand that. If someone I loved had died in one of those accidents, it would seem strange that the road appeared so normal. Here this important and terrible thing happened, and everything about the place is completely ordinary. It wouldn’t seem right.
On the other hand, I still don’t think I’d put up a marker. The location was the result of random chance, and it had nothing to do with the person who died.
All of this is not to say that there shouldn’t be a monument to the people murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I’m just not sure that this should be it. I haven’t been following the planning of the 9/11 memorial, so I don’t know much about this, but it looks like they’re setting aside eight acres of Manhattan for the memorial, and they won’t be rebuilding any commercial buildings where the towers stood.
Somehow, it all seems like too much. By comparison, when the Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River in 1915, over 800 people died. The only memorial is this plaque (although there are plans for a slightly larger exhibit). Of course, almost four times as many people died on 9/11, and they died not in an accident but in an act of war, which does make a difference. Still, the 9/11 monument is half an acre larger than the National World War II Memorial.
I can’t escape the feeling that some people see memorializing 9/11 as a business and political opportunity, that some people who claim to represent the 9/11 families are really representatives only of their own self-interest, and that some people who claim to be honoring the dead are really trying to attract attention to themselves.
Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like I said, I really don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It only makes sense, therefore, that the things other people plan won’t have much appeal to me, nor should they. When it comes to building the 9/11 memorial, no one should give much thought to pleasing someone who feels as I do. Nothing they do there is going to upset me much.
Still, I wish they’d do something. It’s been almost nine years since the towers fell. That’s four years longer than it took to build the towers or almost a third of the time they were standing. Looking at the construction site webcam as I write this, night has fallen, and imprints of the towers are just two dark holes in the ground. It sure looks like what Osama bin Laden wanted.