Americans don’t usually do subtlety and reflection very well. We’re just not built for it, or perhaps we haven’t matured enough as a nation to really grasp how and when to do so.
Culturally, we’re teenagers; old enough to remember fondly the baby years but not quite wise enough to slow down, enjoy life, and breathe. Just breathe and think and, regardless of who is around, love.
But no. We’re seventeen and we run around like our hair is on fire. We can fix the world, shape it in our image, and not trivially, we want to be seen. We want to be heard. We want to be noticed and recognised. That is why our national sports play a “World Series” and our national leaders think of themselves as world leaders. We’re teenagers and we’re desperate to be important.
It’s why we built the World Trade centre the way we did, right? It is, or I should say it was, the giant I AM HERE to the rest of the world. Right in the heart of the richest city in the richest country the world has ever seen, we planted two giant buildings full of commerce and wealth. They were glorious.
And in one moment, they were gone — attacked and destroyed for reasons that go far beyond hatred and freedom, and well past any point of rational discussion.
It’s been 10 years since that awful day, which is really hard to believe. I was at home when the attacks happened, in the shower, getting ready for what I had thought would be another slow day at the newspaper office. My then-girlfriend was watching the morning news and called to me: The World Trade centre is on fire!
I figured it was old footage of the 1993 attacks; maybe it was the anniversary or maybe they had found another suspect. Maybe someone blew something up in Berlin or London or Madrid. You know how the media does that, digging up old clips to relate new stories to old news. And that’s how it felt — like old news — for about 15 seconds.
“No, seriously, we’re under attack.”
I wandered out, still half-wet, in time to watch the second plane hit and the towers collapse. It was the longest I’ve ever been silent and still in my life. I saw things on live TV that I will never unsee. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be there, to hear the steel bend and groan and give way; to smell the burning and to see people choose a 50-story plunge over a fiery death.
I am a writer and there simply are no words to capture the moment, the emotions, the feeling in the pit of my stomach that something awful has happened and I, we, all of us, were powerless to stop it.
For 10 years now, we as a nation have wrestled with that same thought: how do we capture the moment in a way that memorializes the dead, honours those who sacrificed, and, at the same time, does not minimize what happened here.
Some said rebuild the towers, bigger than before, as a giant “Eff You” to the terrorists. Others said a peace memorial, or a park, or a place for reflection. Still others said nothing, as in do nothing. Leave a permanent scar, a reminder of a terrible moment in our nation’s history.
Like most truly American experiences, we took the best of all ideas and made one of our own. In the place of the twin towers stands a memorial and a museum. We chose to both honour the dead, remember the dead, and teach future generations what happened here, with the hope that this is the last such memorial the world will ever have to build.
And, of course, we were perfectly American in our timing, opening the Memorial to the public today, one day after the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
The memorial itself is beautiful. There are two waterfalls and reflecting pools, each set within the footprint of the original twin towers. There are more than 400 trees, symbolizing growth and renewal and hope. As promised by the designers, the 2,983 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993, are inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding the twin Memorial pools.
As for the museum, here are the words of the director: “In remembering the victims of the attacks and honouring those who went to their rescue, the Museum will explore the very real impact of terrorism in the lives of very real people, and their families, friends, colleagues and communities. As custodian of memory, the Museum will take on the mantle of moral authority that will define its continuing and evolving role. This Museum will do nothing less than underscore the absolute illegitimacy of indiscriminate murder.”
Of course, it is, like America, still a work in progress. There is much left to do, to build, to create, and to remember. It is, after all, art. Art, like life, is forever changing, forever growing, forever reinventing itself. So, too, is our reaction to those events of September 11, 2001.
For a generation of us, it will never be old news.
For more information on the 9/11 memorial, visit the website,www.911memorial.org. Passes to the memorial are limited and you can reserve them on the website.
— John Thorpe
You can reach the author by email [email protected] or on twitter@johndthorpe.
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