Wolraich: The Grim Possibility Of War With Iran
Heat Win Game Six, Disappointing Nation of Heat-Haters
Wolraich: The Grim Possibility Of War With Iran
Heat Win Game Six, Disappointing Nation of Heat-Haters
Recently, I was in New York for business and had a bit of time to spare. I am never in New York City and had just a bit of time to see sites. After dashing through MoMA, I took a cab to the 9/11 Memorial and was able to visit the site just as the day was reaching dusk in lower Manhattan. If you can, I recommend visiting.
The site is a block from St. Paul's Chapel, the single oldest continuously used public building in Manhattan. It opened in 1766. George Washington attended services there, and there is a sculpture on site designed by Washington DC's designer, Pierre L'Enfant. King's College students (Alexander Hamilton included) drilled there during the Revolutionary War. There is a little iron-fenced 18th Century cemetery adjacent, with narrow, dark, weathered headstones, much like the graves of Sam Adams and Crispus Attucks in Boston. The church survived 9/11 without even a broken window. It is home today to many memorial banners placed there shortly after the Towers fell. I didn't know most of this when I walked by it; I just associated it with George Washington and the Revolutionary War. It sits there, a small, low-slung bit of the 1700s below all the higher structures surrounding it, near roads and subways carrying people to Brooklyn and all about, bearing witness to all the changes and disruptions and wars and deaths and life around it over 250 years.
Unless you preprinted them (I had not, it was a short-notice visit), you have to pick up your tickets at the monument preview site nearby on Vesey Street. The site sells books and interpretive materials, and (unfortunately) also T-shirts and hats. It feels like selling shirts and hats at a cemetery, or at the site where JFK got shot. I appreciate that the site needs $60MM per year to operate, and has to raise it somehow (the entry tickets are free), but the shirt and hat thing felt very wrong.
After I got my ticket and made it out of the human logjam at the preview site, and waded down Vesey past a shoe store (and Zuccotti Park, barricaded and empty except for a Christmas tree), I finally reached the end of the long, snaky, airport-like line in. It hit me that I would be seeing the footprint of the absent buildings in minutes. I got really angry at bin Laden. It was weird. It reminded me with strange vividness of the afternoon of 9/11 when I went walking a couple of blocks from my house with my dog and someone barreled around a corner, slamming into me hard, with rude indifference. I yelled something. It was the only time in my life I ever had the impulse to hit someone. I didn't, but the whole thing was so not me. It was like reality was suspended, or transformed. The day was raw, disturbing, and wrong.
And back in the line, remembering the emotional feel of that day and thinking of a piece I read recently about the jumpers, and wondering if anyone who knew any of them was in the line (there are special visitation times for family of 9/11 victims, but the line was replete with small indications of affiliation with FBI, armed services, law enforcement), I felt the kind of nasty vengefulness that I think I've only really felt in my life about Osama bin Laden and Jared Loughner. I felt a nasty satisfaction in knowing that bin Laden was shot in the head after setting this chain of events, this death and mourning and history, in motion. The angry feeling was unsettling, and after experiencing it briefly, and noticing my eyes tearing, I pushed the feelings back down to get composed, and then it was underneath and gone. But I think visiting the site is like that. It evokes a shared trauma, and makes something that had been history as sudden and vividly present as running into a man around a streetcorner. I tamped it down, and read the materials posted as you walk in. There aren't any up explaining al Qaeda. It felt to me like we still don't know how to talk about this event, it's too negotiated and too fraught to do correctly.
The long, snaky airport-style line shuffles forward, then stops, then starts. For ten minutes in the cold, all you can do is look up at makeshift walls, blocking direct views of the mass of construction all around the site, as the World Trade Center site is being quickly remade, periodically flashing your entry ticket at the numerous security guards. Signs tell you not to take movies of the construction of the new Freedom Tower. It's very suddenly 70 stories high and halfway to its 1776 foot ultimate height, a spire shaped much like the Transamerica building in San Francisco, but wider, more muscular, just remarkably tall even half done.
Fear (for security) even of the filming of this site is an ugly legacy of 9/11. I spent much of the shuffling time wondering whether I would have to walk through airport-style security, complete with boots off and X-raying of bags, but assuming not. Since I spent a lot of the walk in thinking about Atta and the hijackers, I really didn't want to have to go, even here, through the screening they made a constant part of my life. But my assumption was wrong. As the line ends, you go through some doors, and you submit right at the lip of Ground Zero, freakily, to airport-style screening with the same machines, plastic tubs, and briskness. It's annoying at SFO, or O'Hare, or DFW. Here it seems obscene. I couldn't tell if anyone minded.
Then you're through to the site. The South Tower's footprint is close to where you enter. You hear the sound first, of the water. Ahead is a square around that footprint, ringed by torso-high sloped black marble with rows of names. So many names. The number of people in the site is oddly, manageably modest after how thronged the sidewalk is at the end of a Manhattan workday. There are more people queued up to enter the subway, to cross the street, to buy shoes, to board a charter bus, than are around you at this moment. Naturally, you walk to the nearest open spot, halfway up the closest side of the square, and lean to look down into the square where the Tower used to stand.
Water is cycling from right below you, and just below the top of the entire square. Below you, light shines up from the base of the square through the sheet of falling water. Looking down, the water cascades through the light, lands on the shiny black stone twenty feet or so below, and drains to a smaller, concentric square, cascading again, just the same, into light and disappearing. Peering into this, you see the cycling water. It rises up and you're breathing it in, as a cool mist. It is cycling in front of you. You're breathing it in. You're mostly made of water. You're going to be gone someday too. Right now, you're not. You're looking, and breathing, and their lives were all interrupted in a moment, and stopped. The monument is a breathing and evocative metaphor. You don't have to think it. You just feel the cycle, you experience the water. You feel what it says without having to do anything. Without having to interpret it.
Nearby, a woman with a camera backs her mother up. Smile, Mom! And Mom obliges, leaning on a row of names five deep, and it is so incongruous, you just turn away.
As you walk in, interpretive materials say that this is sacred ground. I couldn't disagree more. We don't consecrate anything by killing 3,000 people. The lives of the people are special. But while the memories of mass murder victims are sacred, the land on which folks are murdered en masse to me is not. Venerating the place itself is a step in solving grief or trauma through ritualization that hurts us more than it helps. It says there is a talisman, this place, and we must view it with some reverence. This impulse is too close to venerating whatever we are told we must do because of it. It is the people killed that matter. It is the event that matters. But claiming sacredness for a ground of slaughter is a claim that is too easily misused to preempt or silence healthier reactions. It's too close to the Giuliani punchlinizing of this important place and event. I would love to ask some of the dead what they think of the Iraq War, and of all the death since 9/11. I feel certain their responses would be far wiser than our government's or our culture's.
There are flowers and cards left on the slanted black stone ringing each Tower's footprint. They are typically small and modest declarations of affinity with someone deceased. A card from firefighters overseas for all the NYFD who died. A card for a father. Short, loving messages. This is a way in which the site is very different from the MLK Memorial, which I visited in September and about which I wrote then, just after it opened. King is still living history, because so many remember his work in the 1960s and his shooting in 1968. But he was one man. His monument is an edifice bigger than the Lincoln Memorial. We are small and cluster around it. At the 9/11 Memorial, the event is still so recent, it is only barely history. Where King is large and singular and magisterial above the tiny visitors, at the 9/11 Memorial, you are singular and alive and the names are so small and many. The site is so literally personal to them, it stops feeling like public history. That day is both an experience you had individually, but it is someone else's thing, as much as your own death will be, whether in your bed, or a car crash, or a hospital, or anywhere. This is their private place, and it feels intrusive that their death-moment is our public history. Again, I would love to know what the dead think of all this. From what I have read and observed, it seems that the Memorial, which I find beautiful and evocative of a cycle of life, gives many of the family members comfort.
After seeing the water falling, I look at the ticket, which contains a rendering of how the site will look, with trees over zigzag sidewalks in the plaza. The trees will add life to the site, will make it less bare and less urban, and more pastoral as the memorial feels it should be. And yet rising confidently above it all, now in front of a dark sky, is the half-built Freedom Tower. And suddenly the site feels really hopeful to me. It is a point in time in 2011 long past the Towers falling. It somehow describes another small dot of time in a long arc that began before St. Paul's, and which will outlast me and will outlast the visitors to the Memorial, and will outlast so many of the structures that rise and fall in the area. The quickly rising building is today, though. It is a spirit of becoming, I feel even as I am still sad for those who died, and for the displacement in our history and overreaction in us it wrought. The sadness makes me hopeful like salt makes you taste sweetness.
Leaving New York, my plane circled from JFK over Long Island. You can see the new tower from so far away. The height is almost silly, but the impulse to build is good. I hope you can visit the 9/11 Memorial. It's a rare public work of art that evokes feelings that heal, feelings that rose up in me without my having to think about them, or think much at all. Standing at the waterfall in a loud, bustling, messy city and hearing the sound of the water and letting the place wash over you, breathing in the water. I want to go back when the new tower is done, and the trees are growing, and the construction walls are down, and nothing is being built, and the people walking through have described lines of time thickly over this site, and visit St. Paul's and come back to the water and yes the names, and know that I am older and grayer and that time has moved on further, and that this all is the way of this world and good.