Looking Back And Forward

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The Cold War finally forced a change in our national attitude toward preparedness. We have certainly maintained a bigger, more capable, more professional standing military than the nation ever did before. But how have we supported our bravest men and women here at home? Too many Democrats have offered up clearly unworkable solutions to the War in Iraq from an immediate withdrawal to posting a timetable for when we will go. The administration, in turn, has insisted that we can fight a vital, global campaign for freedom with no draft and with private contractors and tax cuts for all. Perhaps one reason our reaction has been so muddled has been our inability to properly commemorate what we feel about 9/11. Particularly disturbing is our continuing lack of any physical commemoration.

In the immediate wake of the attack, the one thing I could not have envisioned was that there would still be nothing on the site of the World Trade Center four years later. New York, after all, is the same city where the Empire State Building rose in 14 months. Putting up a working building that must also serve as a monument is a far more intricate business, of course. In the days immediately following September 11, most New Yorkers probably would have voted to rebuild the Twin Towers just as they were. Barring that, I believe we wanted something that would amaze the world, something that would make a great statement about the resilience of a democracy in the face of the most ruthless terror.

Yet from the beginning the effort to replace the towers has been uncoordinated, inept, and even cavalier. Only a public hue and cry kept a set of buildings that looked like nothing so much as an array of hypodermic needles from being erected. Both Washington and the private sector have remained utterly indifferent to the whole process, and the developer who owned the towers has been obstructionist at best. The man most responsible for overseeing the site, New York’s governor, George Pataki, has been simply missing in action.

The result is that what should have been the most moving and obvious element of any memorial—the ruined shards of the old towers’ trellises—were simply carted off to a dump, and Daniel Libeskind’s original master plan for the site has now been whittled away to nothing. The new “Freedom Tower” as currently designed will be the Twin Towers minus one, another urban glass box, with a windowless 20-story concrete base. As the architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff writes, it “evokes a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top… . The temptation is to dismiss it as a joke.”

Is this the best we can do? We are, after all, the nation that gave the world what may be the most poignant war memorial ever, Maya Lin’s tribute to our Vietnam dead. Both Lin’s somber wall of names and the more traditional statue of three soldiers planted nearby were controversial when unveiled, but they actually work well together—a rare example of a successful artistic compromise. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is nearly as poignant, as is Saint-Gaudens’s great bronze bas-relief of the 54th Massachusetts on the edge of Boston Common. The Lincoln Memorial, of course, is overwhelming in its solemn majesty, a tribute to a great President that has become a sacred icon in its own right.

Other monuments have been less successful. The recent memorial to our Korean veterans seems to me as confused and ambiguous as the war they fought in: a patrol of life-size troops, their color and expressions so odd and spectral it might have been subtitled “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Christopher Walken.” The new World War II memorial on the Washington Mall has been nearly as controversial as Lin’s design was, fervently supported by some, criticized by others as bombastic, gargantuan, and out of place.

We must do better when it comes to remembering the events of 9/11, just as we must speak now against the day when terror returns to our shores. Any society that cannot properly frame its past, that cannot eulogize its dead and celebrate its heroes, renders itself mute. If we cannot give voice to the past, we will hardly be able to sound the certain trumpet needed for the task ahead.

National Guardsmen on duty in Grand Central Terminal, New York City, during the Republican National Convention, August 2004.
jim hollander/epa/sipa jim hollander2005_4_10