Page 2 of 2   <      

The Architecture of Loss

The site of the twin towers remains embattled. The property's owners proposed a 1,776-foot-high office tower dominating the Manhattan skyline. But after its inception, the Freedom Tower had to be redesigned as a virtual fortress because New York City police experts feared it could be vulnerable to a truck bomb attack. Just who wants to be the first to report to work on the 80th floor?

After four years of acrimonious public debate, a jury of experts settled upon a memorial titled "Reflecting Absence:" two square, one-acre twin reflecting pools marking the footprints of each tower, with the names of the victims inscribed at the water's edge. Another panel proposed a vast underground memorial museum and exposed slurry wall from the original site. But relatives of some of the victims objected to the museum, which was designated as an International Freedom Center and would have featured landmarks in the historical struggle for liberty, including the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement. The relatives deemed it politically correct, unpatriotic and lacking in respect for the victims. New York Gov. George Pataki pulled the plug last September, declaring he would not "tolerate anything that denigrates America . . . or the courage that the heroes showed on Sept. 11."

The lack of consensus is no surprise to Robert Jay Lifton, author of psychological studies of Hiroshima survivors (Death in Life) and Vietnam veterans (Home From the War). "I don't think people ever come to anything like a unified position about a memorial," he says. "After all, there's contentiousness about the meaning of the event. And the meaning of the memorial itself -- is it to reflect on these matters or to celebrate heroes and condemn enemies? There's a certain sense in which no memorial can ever capture the depth of pain that people experience."

Lifton was at his home in Wellfleet, Mass., on the morning of September 11, and, like millions of us, he watched the disaster on television. "I immediately thought about Hiroshima, and I quickly discovered it was not just I. A lot of people used the Hiroshima analogy -- even the term Ground Zero was a nuclear term. It's the imagery of extinction, of everything being destroyed."

As governments and public institutions struggle to come to grips with divisive issues, Lifton says, it's left to individuals to pay homage to their loved ones. "What I found in Hiroshima was that people experience the greatest sense of authenticity with a very personal kind of memorialization. Many had shrines in their homes, and some might go out quietly on the date and reflect on a wife or husband or child in the place where that person was killed. It's the very personal, idiosyncratic responses that often are the most satisfying."

In New York, impromptu shrines and memorials sprang up almost from Day One. A museum in SoHo presented portraits of the victims in an exhibit called "Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs," and people lined up around the block. The New York Times's daily publication of "Portraits of Grief" -- thumbnail sketches of the dead that emphasized their personal traits and individuality -- captured the public imagination.

One of the series' avid followers was rock star Bruce Springsteen. He discovered that 158 of the victims were from Monmouth County, N.J., where he lives, and that a surprising number were his fans and the people he had long written about: aging baby boomers, many of them blue-collar workers, with families and mortgages and deferred dreams. He recorded an album called "The Rising" that expressed a sense of loss, vulnerability and redemption. In its songs, people lay down their lives for fellow workers; police officers and firefighters sacrifice themselves. Springsteen's album helped turn 9/11 into a celebration of working-class solidarity and reminded us that America is, as the Economist magazine put it, "a country driven by the aspirations of ordinary people rather than the designs of elites."

It was the ordinary people aboard United Airlines Flight 93, 40 passengers and crew members, who banded together to thwart their captors and probably saved the Capitol, the likely target, from the same fate as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The 1,700-acre crash site in Shanksville, Pa., is sacred ground, as hallowed as that other battlefield in southern Pennsylvania, Gettysburg.

Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) found out how dangerous it is to mess with the public need for commemoration. As chairman of the subcommittee that controls appropriations for the Department of Interior, he held up funding for the Flight 93 memorial for two years, suggesting that it was overly grandiose and costly to taxpayers. In May, Republican House leaders, fearful of political embarrassment with an election year fast upon them, compelled Taylor to cave and approve the first $5 million to purchase the land.

But, while the feds were lagging, a cinematic memorial emerged. To make the docudrama "United 93," director Paul Greengrass interviewed more than 100 people, used unknown actors and real-life pilots and air controllers, including Ben Sliney, head of the FAA command center, who took the decision to shut down American airspace on September 11. Some movie theaters pulled the trailer, reporting that even a brief preview made some viewers weep with fright. "I don't think people are ready for this," said a Manhattan theater manager.

But many of the relatives of the victims endorsed "United 93," and critics praised its raw realism. "If we airbrush the fear and terror out of 9/11, then we're not going to learn the lessons of it," Greengrass told one interviewer. Above all, the film vividly captured one of the truisms of 9/11. "Any of us could have been on that plane," said Christian Clemenson, the actor who played Thomas Burnett, one of the passengers who is believed to have stormed the cockpit.

Some of the most poignant memorials exist in cyberspace. The Library of Congress early on tallied 2,700 memorial Web sites. Many have long since gone inactive, but those that remain offer a place for friends and relatives to mourn. On the Web site of the new Pentagon Memorial ( Wendy Ploger Chamberlain writes of missing her father, who had recently remarried and was on his way with his new wife to Hawaii for a honeymoon on American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. "There were supposed to be many more tennis matches and conversations about remodeling their house and hearing about the next patent he was working on.

Simple things: Christmas, birthdays, drinking beer and watching him light his cannon on the 4th of July. I do these things with him now, but only when I'm asleep, only in my dreams."

Other postings have been more bitter than poignant. On the personal tributes board of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (, one anonymous entry is titled "Very pissed . . . NYPD."

He writes: "This time last year i was digging with my bare hands to find anything or any one still alive, i am still very angry and disturbed. i personally searched thru rubble and found nothing more than bones. i dont feel like we are even, i dont feel satisfied, im sorry to feel this way but i was there and i have friends that died there and i worked there until may, i'm still pissed off. God bless the victims one and all."

The work hasn't ended. Masayuki Sono, designer of the Staten Island memorial, originally embedded some 260 rectangular "stamps" in the interior walls of his monument, one for each of the dead from the borough, each stamp inscribed with the name, job title, company, date of birth and the victim's profile. But he's had to add a few more names to include those who were born on the island or had spent part of their lives there. The Staten Island toll now has reached 272.

A few weeks after the towers fell, Sono went out to Ground Zero with members of his architectural firm to help survey the damage. The plaza that he used to cross on his way to the lobby to grab an elevator up one of the confident towers was obliterated. Nothing was recognizable. "It was a terrible feeling," he recalls. "I tried to find the place where I used to stand, but I couldn't."

Sono's memorial, and scores of others dotted across America, provide a new place to stand.

Glenn Frankel is a Magazine staff writer.

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company