First, we have to go through the security theatre. The long lineups are partially for crowd control (you don’t want the wait to seem too long, so it’s best to break up the line into a few smaller ones), partially to ensure that authority is appropriately represented, showcased, visually asserted. The tone is friendly, the rent-a-cops are matter-of-fact, burly New York men in uniforms resembling—but not quite the same as—those of the various emergency services from around the five boroughs. And you can tell it’s not a ‘real’ security check (like at the airport): you don’t have to take off your shoes or belt, and they wave you through pretty quickly and casually. Security theatre, here, somehow seems an appropriate gateway performance, setting the tone for where you’re headed, a reminder, if you needed one, of how much has changed in New York since the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001.
On this bright spring afternoon in early May, the Memorial is bathed in radiant sunshine, accentuated by the sharp shadows of the tall skyscraper canyons surrounding it. Two giant black marble pools with manmade waterfalls cascading water evenly down from all four sides. The water disappears into a smaller square at the bottom of the pool, into an invisible infinity below. Each pool (North and South) represents the footprint of one of the World Trade Center towers.
On one hand, the sheer size of the pools suggests the magnitude of the former floor plans: even with elevators and stairs in the middle, these were expansive offices. On the other, it is hard to imagine—as it is with every New York high-rise—how such a comparatively small area can hold so many floors: the marvel of modern architecture.
The pools mark the void, the precise locations where the Twin Towers once stood. As such, they are somber reminders of an absence, the now-tidied-up, re-built and paved-over final result of the chain of events set in motion on that September day. Construction is still all around: there’s makeshift fencing everywhere, scaffolding, cranes for a few blocks in several directions. The 9/11 Memorial is surrounded by unfinished buildings. Its own future indoor museum, an odd-shaped geometric glass building, is incomplete and occupies one side of the Memorial grounds, waiting to welcome visitors sometime in the future. For now, the only indoor attraction is the gift shop, replete with mostly tasteful memorabilia. Visitors are drawn in by a short video loop of survivor interviews, presumably meant to advertise one of the commemorative DVDs on sale here. But instead of increasing sales, the room takes on a church-like atmosphere for a moment while everyone tries to process the magnitude of where they are and what they are hearing.
Outside, the newly planted swamp white oak trees have not yet grown to provide enough of a canopy to create the impression of a park. Tourists, the occasional local and site volunteers mill about in their bright clothes, and because neither the displays nor vegetation have any elevation (the name displays at the sides of the pools are only about 4′ tall), everything feels temporary.
Curiously, though, this doesn’t seem incongruent. The Memorial is, at its core, a meditation on the contingent nature of things. Where there once were two of the tallest, most iconic buildings in the world, there are now two deep black marble pools with waterfalls. Where there were once the people who worked in these buildings, there are now only their names, cleanly engraved into the bronze parapets surrounding the pools, painstakingly arranged by significant proximity—of person to person, person to event, cause to effect.
There is no meditative practice, no feat of the imagination that helps to experience the impact of the names. All are engraved in the same typeface. The only ones that stand out are the long ones (with middle names, or finishing in Roman numerals). 3,000 died that day: office workers, emergency service workers, delivery people, building visitors. All are represented here. Surprisingly, it does not seem like a mass grave, although the black marble’s clean lines certainly hold that potential.
The entrance lets out nearest the south pool, so everyone flocks there, creating the impression that the Memorial is very crowded. This is just the tourist way, though. In fact, if you branch out just a little and start to walk around the south pool, it clears up pretty quickly. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the crowding-together was somehow an intuitive reaction to the impact of seeing all those names. Few things are more challenging than being alone with our thoughts in a place like this, and the further you walk around the two pools, away from the crowds, the lonelier it becomes.
So many names. They wash over you in their New York ethnic diversity. There is no imagining who anyone was—and while it is possible to Google some of the victims, you wouldn’t necessarily want to. It’s moving and impactful for those of us who were not directly involved; for those with a family member or friend who died that day, it must be devastating all over.
I’ve heard Europeans actually voice the notion that the Americans somehow deserved this catastrophe, that they brought it upon themselves, that their politics of empire disguised as ‘policeman of the world’ are at the root of all this. Throughout history, we have been unable to immediately process immense human evil and its associated destruction (Nazi Germany, Hiroshima). But we do eventually develop language that allows us to navigate, to grasp, to take hold. This callous, insensitive avoidance of engaging with the nature of the attack by positing a faux causality is especially puzzling since Europeans, with their rootedness in history, should really know better. Unfortunately, it seems, history does in fact teach us nothing. Just as it is impossible to fully comprehend an event such as 9/11 shortly after it occurs, our empathy for the victims also erodes with the passage of time: the further away we move from an atrocity or catastrophe, the less we are able to connect with it and learn from it.
The 9/11 Memorial serves as an appropriate reminder of September 11, 2001. It is not a rousing, soaring experience in the way that many Americans, I imagine, would like it to be. It’s been more than ten years since the attacks, and the word ‘hero’ has become a part of the daily vocabulary here, dulled by overuse. Today’s American ‘heroes’ are regular members of the emergency forces, or upstanding citizens who defend someone publicly. They’re called ‘heroes’ regardless of whether acts of heroism were actually performed. It is a kind of valour by proxy. I don’t subscribe to this use of the word as I think it cheapens the legacy of those who were actually involved on September 11, and degrades the word itself.
The Memorial is mostly hero-language free. The structuralists taught us that we don’t form experiences first and then name them in language but that it is in fact language that constitutes the categories of reality. In a manner of speaking, reality only exists because of language. At the very least, language deeply affects our perceptions. In this sense, the Memorial’s restraint from narration is its greatest achievement: it does not tell us what to think or how to feel. Even the way-finding signage is minimal and only serves to orient as to the location of the names of the dead.
There are so many names. What moved me the most was to see ‘Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas and her unborn child’ and ‘Rahma Salie and her unborn child.’ It is of course no surprise that a number of pregnant women perished in the attacks (as it happens, both Ms. Grandcolas and Ms. Salie were on flights that day). Not that ‘innocence’ should be a factor in how one thinks about 9/11—or that it even matters—but seeing those two names in particular amplified the Memorial visit for me in ways that I hadn’t expected.
It’s not an easy place to visit, but you must.
The 9/11 Memorial is in lower Manhattan. Tickets should be ordered in advance at http://www.911memorial.org/.