How to remember 9/11?

The current issue of First Things has a piece by R. R. Reno that’s worth reading on The Failed 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center. The basic issue it raises is that it’s odd to have a large impressive memorial in a location that’s as prominent as the WTC, only to have the memorial dissolve the event commemorated into 3,000 private events of a kind (murder) that’s very traumatic but happens quite often every year in America.

So the question becomes what the memorial means. Reno’s answer, in effect, is that it’s an assertion that life and death don’t have large public meanings but only the private meanings particular people see in them. I think he’s right. It’s a public memorial that deconstructs a major public event. The move is inhuman because man is a social animal. It’s bad politically too, since it suggests a postmodern tyranny in which nothing has essential moral qualities so spin, money, therapeutic claims, etc. (and eventually force) determine not only what happens in this instance or that but what ultimately counts as real and important.

But what should have been done instead? Reno believes a little patriotism would have been in order, and the men who run the Port Authority, who put out a huge American flag opposite the memorial, apparently felt that way too. The murders were a political act, and that gives them a public meaning. They were intended as an attack on America, and on a symbol and center of American power, so those who died did so (mostly) as Americans for America.

The suggestion raises a difficult question though: what is it about America that can bear the weight of giving meaning to death? The WTC mostly stood for America as the center of global capitalism, and that won’t do. More generally, America is increasingly understood as a proposition nation, where the proposition is individual self-determination within a system that fosters the same. But if that’s America, then the public ideally dissolves into the private, together with a featureless system of administration and exchange, and maybe the WTC 9/11 memorial has the right slant on things.

So I’m not sure what the answer is. On the evidence of the monument itself our public culture at its highest level has no answer either. Maybe a much smaller monument would have been better. An eternal flame or some such in a corner somewhere would have lacked the grand assertiveness of a big prominent memorial, and it would actually have carried out the modest intention of remembering the dead and providing a private setting for people to think their private thoughts about what it all means within a public setting that can no longer deal with such issues.

The instincts that led the Port Authority to put out the flag are good as far as they go, but it seems unlikely they could articulate their point of view (it’s populist after all) and integrate it into a general humane scheme that goes beyond nationalistic self-assertion. As always, it’s important what the people at the top intellectually think of things and how they explain them to us.

To go beyond a modest memorial and bring patriotic meanings into the picture it seems we’d need a civil religion, or something similar, with the authority needed to put the sudden violent death of 3000 people into a comprehensible setting. That seems unlikely any time soon. People with authority in various fields would have to accept the civil religion as true, or as a reasonable popular image of truth, and it’s hard to imagine that when intellectual life and the whole educational system is integrated into a ruling structure increasingly committed to radical secularism.

Leave a Comment