Of all places, The Weekly Standard has a really interesting article on memorializing the plane crash in Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001. The “Flight 93” site. I find the article compelling because it brings out just how impossible such memorials are in terms of mass consumption. To be honest, I’m always puzzled about what might be the proper strategy. That said, I have a few ideas about what is wrong with both of the existing memorials…and maybe any national memorial whatsoever.
Disclaimer, Reputation Saver, and Caveat: I friggin’ hate The Weekly Standard. Nevertheless…
The article describes quite nicely – though with some annoying indulgence of folky kitsch – how the citizens of Shanksville, PA spontaneously began and organized caretaking of the memorial space of the crash. I say “memorial space of the crash” because the memorial was nothing official, nothing constructed, but rather a marking of open space. Regular people traveled to the swatch of land and simply left trinkets behind. Shanksville and surrounding area folks then stepped in to keep watch over the site, gathering and cataloguing what was left in honor of the dead when the trinkets piled too high or wide. From The Weekly Standard:
It was starkly simple: a 60-foot chain-link fence, two poles flying the American and Pennsylvania flags, and a small placard with the names of the dead.
The fence is covered with tiny tributes, everything from firemen’s helmets to baseball caps to crucifixes to prayer cards. Near ground-level it is not uncommon to see collections of Matchbox cars and other toys left by children. There is a 15-foot cross by the flagpoles now, an array of benches bearing the names of the dead, and a set of 40 small wooden “Freedom Angels.” The county administers the temporary memorial, removing and storing mementos when they become weather-beaten and keeping a catalogue of every item that has been left behind.
But that spontaneous memorial and the local management of it came to an end when the federal government undertook a memorial project. I don’t think many of us would be surprised that bureaucratic language took over and kooky cost-benefit analysis carried the day. The result is a fairly abstract memorial plan (not nearly as abstract as the author of the Weekly Standard article claims, however). The author describes it:
Stretching out over 1,300 acres, the memorial begins with a tall “Tower of Voices” (which houses 40 wind chimes) by the entrance. Visitors drive past it and down to the parking area near the Crescent (later reconfigured as the Bowl)–a giant circle defined by 40 groves of trees, each of which contains 40 red and sugar maples. Visitors walk through the bowl, toward the crash site, dubbed “Sacred Ground.”
Part of the Bowl is designated “Wetlands”: “The area will be its own kind of healing landscape, as it will be a habitat full of life. . . . Here visitors will be most aware of continuously connected living systems as the circular path literally bridges the hydrology of the Bowl.”
The snippy tone of the Weekly Standard article comes out in the derisive review of numbers, showing how the government anticipates – guesses, really – an enormous economic impact. The Weekly Standard’s tone is deserved, of course. Such calculations are both sketchy and crass. The tone is also deserved because the government has to displace a living memorial, comprised of genuine sentiments and tributes. I find the simple list of names so interesting – something I’ve always found moving about Maya Lin‘s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in D.C. Another issue altogether is the ethics of destroying a living memorial, which is exactly what the federal government will be doing shortly.
Yet, at the same time, The Weekly Standard pays little attention to the possibly, even obviously, offensive collage of religious trinkets, many of which impose a language of redemption on what might just be pure loss. The appeal of Shankville’s memorial is simply that it was organic, growing out of the community without pretension. I understand that sentiment. There is something irreducibly artificial about an artist’s memorial, and I think such artificiality is most problematic when the community-on-site has already intervened in memory work. The problem, however, is that the catastrophe of 11 September 2001, whether in NYC or the Pentagon or Shanksville, was, is, and will always be a national event. Shanksville and its visitors have neither a natural right nor a privileged memorial position in relation to flight 93’s sense of tragedy. To own that with angels and crucifixes – as if all who mourn those lives were christians, even a particular kind of christian who sees such loss through the frame of G-d’s plan of redemption – is beyond problematic. It is baldly offensive. I don’t doubt the good-hearted intentions of many of the locals and the thousands of visitors. Actually, check that: I harbor some suspicions, given the crazy wars that have followed in the wake of 11 September 2001, but I generally think folks are moved by such sad spaces and do what they can
This is one of the things federal government is for: representing the people as such, not just a locale. A memorial is a particularly risky kind of representative endeavor, but, as so risky, also the most necessary.
I say “risky” because the intervention of artists typically entangles very visceral pain and sad memory in abstraction and high culture’s formal considerations and self-assigned virtues. Now, I’m quite a fan of abstraction, generally speaking, and my professional life moves in putatively “high” culture (I have doubts). But abstraction in remembering human loss is such a profound risk. Specific communities and particular individuals register loss directly, not as a national event. National events are necessarily mediated, whether by distance or ideology or various other things, almost always in a befuddling combination. Shanksville suffered this so directly. This is where bodies and body parts were scattered and retrieved. So much death in a small, unexpected space (can such death ever be expected? Sadly, yeah). People are in need of memory of that experience, not just the generalized experience of “national disaster” and so on. Memorials need to be attuned to that. In fact, that is probably the most difficult work of any memorial site. To be exceedingly local, consider just why it would be so offensive for the state to impose a gravestone on a family. You have to remember your loss with this marker, this symbol. Whatever a general loss and what it demands of us, people suffer in locales. Memorials need that root.
All that said, and we haven’t even touched on the families of those who died (!), I don’t think this existing impromptu memorial (which The Weekly Standard strangely calls “monumental”) really remembers. Rather, it blends christian kitsch – angels and crucifixes? – with commodity exchange – leave what you think is valuable…whatever cuteness, that’s largely what a kid is thinking when leaving a Matchbox car behind. Or when a parent asks that of a kid. Let me be clear: I don’t blame people for these gestures. Nor do I think folks mean anything but the best. We don’t know quite how to mourn and remember this kind of crazy shit. So, this is where reflective memorial work is really needed.
The federal memorial plan clears open space for contemplation. I’m totally on board for that space. It clears out stuff like the Confederate flag in this photo of the Shanksville site, and so clears out a place for singularity in a large and largely constructed memorial: I find my sense of pain and loss in emptiness, which in turn places me in just what is left after so much death – emptiness. The risk here, of course, is that the dead disappear into our own narcissistic mourning. But that’s a risk build into our very thinking; it is always “I” thinking about the dead, wisdom as old as Descartes, if not Plato. That is, like death itself, the risk of narcissistic mourning lies at the limit of our being. Imagine a memorial capable of laboring against that…