Thursday, February 03, 2005

A Monument to Mammon?

This is the text of a piece I wrote for Newsday in October 2001 in response to its request for an op/ed piece on Ground Zero as hallowed ground. "A Monument to Mammon" was the original title. It was published on October 29 with minimal changes but a different title, "Commerce, Memory Will Have to Share the Ground."

Yesterday the families of those who perished in the World Trade Center attack got their first close-up look at the wreckage that symbolizes the blasted hopes of themselves and those they loved. It will take a year to remove the mountains of rubble. Until then, Ground Zero will be a mass grave, like the battleship Arizona, whose rusted hulk remains the tomb of over a thousand sailors.

In 1962 the United States constructed the U.S.S. Arizona memorial. Each year it attracts nearly 1.5 million visitors. As they peer into the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, stained with oil that still bleeds from the warship’s fuel bunkers, they think of—-what? The cost of freedom? The futility of war? The memorial’s design gives them wide latitude to assign their own meaning.

Even more open to personal interpretation is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. It is simply a black marble wall inscribed with the names of every American killed in that war. Unlike the Arizona, no serviceman is literally buried within it, but the presence of all 58,000 dead is palpable. In that sense, the Vietnam Memorial is profoundly "hallowed ground."

That term, of course, was how Lincoln described the Gettysburg battlefield, where 5,700 men perished to give the United States "a new birth of freedom." Lincoln’s phrasing deftly included both Union and Confederate dead. Those who created the battlefield park, however, were more partisan. For them it commemorated the sacrifice of the Northern soldier alone.

Paradoxically, at the same time the Gettysburg park commissioners insisted that theirs whould be a shrine to Union valor, other Union and Confederate veterans created the Chickamauga battlefield park (in northern Georgia) as a symbol of sectional reconciliation. A number of Revolutionary War battlefields were also memorialized during the late nineteenth century, partly as a reminder Northerners and Southerners had fought side by side to create the republic.

Those who preserve "hallowed ground" usually hold strong views about why the ground is hallowed. The same will probably hold for the World Trade Center. A future memorial on the site is inevitable. The only question is the form it will take. Some have suggested constructing a park like the one in Oklahoma City. Larry Silverstein, the Center’s landlord, disagrees. "The people who have inflicted this upon us are clearly out to destroy our way of life," he says. "It would be a tragedy to allow them their victory." Instead, Silverstein has proposed erecting four 50-story buildings to replace the two lost towers. According to a recent poll, 64 percent of Americans support such a plan.

So does prominent architect A. M. Stern. The towers, he maintains, are "a symbol of our achievements as New Yorkers and as Americans, and to put them back says that we cannot be defeated."

These are stalwart sentiments, yet a bit disingenuous. Did the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, by erecting a park on the site of the Murrah office building, admit themselves "defeated" by Timothy McVeigh? Is it irrelevant that Ground Zero happens to occupy sixteen acres of prime real estate, that the twin towers contained 15 million square feet of office space? On this point architect Charles Harper is refreshingly blunt: "I don't think it’s going to be economically feasible to take that much space in Manhattan and turn it into a memorial."

If it isn’t, those who died on September 11 will have to be memorialized in a different way. Some have drawn parallels to European cathedrals destroyed in World War Two. Sometimes the ruins were left standing and a new cathedral built alongside. Sometimes just a symbolic fragment was retained. But is an office complex built for commerce really comparable to an edifice dedicated to humanity’s highest spiritual apirations? Would the bereaved families who attended yesterday’s service agree that the core meaning of their loved ones’ lives was about getting and spending?

Mr. Harper is probably right: a sizeable fraction of that prime real estate will have to be restored to business use. But to suggest, overtly or by implication, that commerce made the World Trade Center hallowed ground, would be a mistake. And as with the Arizona and Vietnam memorials, one that gives visitors room to assign their own meaning is the best monument.

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