January 22, 2019

Memorializing Sept. 11

As we reach the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, there is a fundamental problem in the task of its memorialization and remembrance.

On Sept. 11, 2011, a decade after the attacks, there is no closure. The legacy of 9/11 remains unclear.

Permit me to explain why: There is a difference between tragedy and atrocity. In tragedy, what is learned roughly or even remotely balances the price that is paid for such knowledge. Atrocity offers no such possibility, and thus no inner space to bury the event. At most, it leaves those of us left behind searching amid the rubble to find some meaning to an event of such magnitude that it violates our very sense of meaning.

The bombing of the World Trade Center was not a tragedy; it was an atrocity. The reason that Americans could find only incomplete closure to their suffering after the execution of Osama bin Laden is because of the imbalance between the magnitude of the crime and the limited justice that could be achieved.

Why is the legacy unclear? We are still at war in two countries as a result of the attacks — if not technically in Iraq, at least psychologically. The war in Iraq was completely unrelated to 9/11, and it was started for reasons now proven to be invalid. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein was in many ways awful, but he was not involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The struggle against terrorism is ongoing and not yet won; at best, some progress has been made. So the legacy cannot be described in terms of attack and response, defeat and victory. Al-Qaeda has now morphed, and in the post-bin Laden era will continue to take diverse shapes and forms in different countries.

New York, and the nation with it, will have to deal with the paradoxical legacy of absence: the absence of presence and the presence of absence.

New York is in the process of rebuilding from the ashes. A moving memorial has been erected on the actual footprint of the Twin Towers, creating pools of water with the names of all who were killed, whether in the bombing of the building or in the rescue efforts. The one surviving tree, now rehabilitated and renewed, will bear witness, truly a remnant plucked from the fire.

The pool demarcates the void where once there had been massive buildings. New York’s skyline is marked by the absence of presence, and when one visits the site, one is haunted by the presence of absence; the buildings that were once there are absent, but their absence is ever present, at least for those of us who know the site, who remember the skyline, who are haunted by the flames, the ashes and the collapse.

The families of those who were lost during the attack of 9/11, the workers and visitors to the Twin Towers and their would-be rescuers who became its victims are also haunted by the presence of absence. At first, it was the father whose place at the table is suddenly empty, or the wife who no longer ruffles one side of the bed. Over time, one must get used to that absence and move on, but on important occasions,  an orphan’s graduation or the wedding of a child, the birth of a first grandchild, a second or a third, one senses that absence. Its presence is haunting, making even the most wonderful moment bittersweet, every joy incomplete.

New York has decided to build not only a memorial, which stands mute, and to which the visitors can impart meaning, but a museum to tell the story of what happened. It, too, will have to deal with the unformed nature of the legacy of 9/11. It will tell the story of the perpetrators and their victims. It will memorialize the dead by giving them a name, a face, a voice and a story. It will speak of the courage of the rescuers who struggled to save them and paid for their gallant efforts with their lives. It will exhibit the remnants that also remained from the flames. I had the chance to see these haunting and shattering artifacts when they were still in an old Tower Airline Terminal at JFK. It will offer solace by telling the story of a city that was united, a country that was joined together as one, by speaking of rescue, courage and dignity in the face of atrocity. But it will also have to tell the story of the unity that then fractured, the opportunities that were lost, of the sacrifices that went unrequited.

When I first contemplated the loss a decade ago, I wrote:

“The survivors of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Bombings will not be defined by the lives they have led until now, but the lives that they will lead from now on. For the experience of near death to have ultimate meaning, it must take shape in how one rebuilds from the ashes. Such for the individual; so too, for the nation.”

The question remains, how have we rebuilt from the ashes?