Thursday, July 07, 2005

Resolve and Memory as a Memorial

At 7:30 this morning my phone rang. Buried beneath pillows and entangled in sheets and a down comforter, I tried to make out my friend Jeff's words. He was saying something about bombs in London. My sleep-addled mind conflated my memories of standing in the vast atrium of Helmut Jahn's Illinois State Office Building in Chicago and my recollections of Sir Norman Foster's Swiss Re Tower in London. I drifted back to sleep with the terrifying image of myself standing in Jahn's atrium as the glass walls of Foster's London tower collapsed around me.

An hour or so later, I bladed across Capitol Hill from my house to Union Station where I hopped on the Metro rail red line train for my commute to work in Bethesda. I'd heard on the news that security in the city, and especially on the Metro rail system, was elevated to one of the Department of Homeland Security's terror alert codes. Since they were instituted shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I've studiously avoided getting to know their various meanings. I decided a long time ago that the federal government's imposition of these alerts was in its own way a source of terror. Apparently my fellow commuters felt similarly. There appeared to be no glimmers of anxiety or fear among us.

The terrible events in London today brought to my mind memories of the hours and days immediately following our own encounter with terror. In my mind, it was a period characterized by chilling uncertainty and incalcuable loss. In the lengthening shadow of September 11, 2001, civic leaders and committees have, with a great deal of awkwardness, stumbled on their journey to erect a suitable memorial to honor the hundreds of people killed on that day, to put together something tangible to speak to the significant loss. In addition to a memorial, the same leaders and committee members have made attempts to reconstruct the parcel of land, the enduring symbol for what was lost on that day, in downtown Manhattan.

Nobody would argue that we require tangible markers for the remembrance of significant historical and cultural events. I can't help but wonder, however, if the huge engine powering the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan and the creation of a memorial hasn't lost sight of the real mission there—the commemoration of individual lives extinguished in an unexpected and seemingly random cataclysmic event.

By all accounts, the families of the dead have, as each anniversary passes, disbanded from the public expressions of remembrance. Instead, they choose to remember their lost privately. I wonder how many have also distanced themselves from the shifting memorial design motifs and reconfigurations of the master plan for "ground zero." Perhaps, like me, and millions of others, they read about the missteps and starts and stops there with curiosity and disbelief.

Michael Arad, a talented young architect, created a simple and straightforward design for a memorial at the site of the fallen World Trade Center. It demonstrated restraint and expressed a certain timelessness in its abstract composition. In his design, trees were scattered randomly around the site. Two voids articulated the footprints of the towers. Names of each victim were to be displayed randomly in stone and in a manner not unlike those of the Vietnam War dead on Maya Lin's iconic memorial. His was a fitting tribute to the absolute surprise that overtook all the people who died on that pristine late summer day.

While the armature of his design remains intact today, it has undergone modifications and been "improved" by other design participants. And, most people familiar with the design process believe there will be further changes.

Whatever rises one day at "ground zero" will be primarily for public consumption. In their homes and on their city or town streets, at their places of work, walking in their local parks, or simply sitting on their porches, the people who lost sons and daughters, husbands, wives, lovers, siblings, and friends, will remember in their own personal and private ways. I'm guessing that any monument built, however graceful or beautiful, won't be necessary to stimulate their recollection of what was lost.

I was fortunate in that nobody I knew personally died on that day nearly four years ago. But, when terror enters our lives again, as it did today in London, my honor for and commemoration of the dead, the hurt, and the wounded is manifested by a resolve not to be afraid, not to submit to intimidation by foreign terrorists, or even the tactics of our own government, which would have us live in a continued state of uncertainty and paranoia.

Somehow I think the spirits of the 9/11 dead appreciate our simple act of remembering that they once shared with us the experience of living. I believe they would encourage among us a deliberate resolve to live boldly without fear.