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The year 2002 is a palindrome–meaning a word or number decipherable the same way backward and forward. Palindromes in calendar years are often the subject of mathematical proofs demonstrating the rarity of their occurrence.
I have begun contemplating another palindromic year, 1991. I could say many things about 1991: America started the year at war in the Middle East under the leadership of President George Bush; Saddam Hussein was described as evil by aforementioned President Bush in speeches to the nation; and the approval ratings for presidential policy were astronomically high for a period of months.
The past and present have an uncanny relationship when palindromes are involved, yet the distinct historical qualities produced by 10 years of change (or lack of it) do create important cultural differences. My interest in palindromes, however, is not entirely in years or governmental policy; rather, I am focused on how remembering events from the past function backward and forward in the space of memory.
In the impossibly quick duration of days since the events on Sept. 11, a persistent and uncomfortable question has lingered in my mind: now what? Since January, I have repeatedly pondered not so much what to write but how to begin writing a critique of the historical moment in which the U.S. populace finds itself.
I am not so quick to roll heroically onward for the sake of forced normalcy and social productivity. What remains unclear in my mind is how much, if at all, life has changed in most of America. The people who died in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania most certainly left behind family members in a radically different state of everyday life.
But for the rest of the United States, I remain unsure. The one location I do believe intense critical thinking needs to focus– for a moment at least– is the crater left by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
In recent months, The New York Times has run a series of stories on the difficulties in designing and creating a memorial in Manhattan at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers. Discussions about the national requirement for a memorial began almost immediately after the events of Sept. 11 and will continue for many months, and probably years, to come.
Round-the-clock crews clearing the area have worked at a rapid and unprecedented rate, emptying the area where the towers once stood. The quick removal of debris has forced the uncomfortable question I find myself contemplating: now what?
What kind of memorial– or maybe it should be a monument– can or should be built for the people who died in New York because of the events related to Sept. 11? Should said memorial and monument consider the people who also died in Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon?
What kind of designed object or place can adequately articulate such a drastic and indescribably chaotic moment? Proposals for various memorial designs have begun pouring into City Hall in New York. I want to make my own suggestion.
Leave the hole created by the collapsed towers as the memorial– unmodified and unaltered.
Do not build a park with aesthetically pleasing gardens or commission new sculptures to represent the dead. Most importantly– and I am being entirely serious– do not build a gift shop.
Leave the void created on Sept. 11 as an absence that reminds everybody who stares into it of what happened. No video screens reproducing television images of buildings collapsing 1,000 times a day, no tour guides pointing to where offices once stood, no long speeches by an A-list collection of intellectuals and politicians describing how a new memorial park will prevent Americans from ever forgetting what happened on Sept. 11.
Building a memorial of vast size and sentimentality only guarantees all will be forgotten, securing the events of Sept. 11 a footnote in history books. Building a new office tower complex on the site also guarantees a covering over of the past. If the physical devastation is covered over, the need to understand how and why such events could transpire will be lost in the design.
Memorial designs have a tendency to give explanations and produce meanings legitimating design choices. A vast crater in the ground like the one in Manhattan resists being easily explained away, and that is exactly what a memorial should do: produce a critique of historical conditions.
Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., is the rare design that makes a person think about the countless names and deaths listed one after the other. Simple as the design is, it is difficult to forget or ignore the historical moment called the Vietnam War.
Likewise in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, craters produced in the city by bombing during the war have been filled in with a hardened, red putty. The medium-to-large red splotches are flush with the sidewalk, and pedestrians easily glide over the areas. Signs do not adorn each of the filled in craters, and a person is left to ask, as I did, why are red splotches covering the street? The answer I received caught me off guard: “It is national memorial. Those are the places where many people were killed during the war, so we remember that it happened.” The areas of red are everywhere in Sarajevo, as if a giant fountain pen had been shaken, covering the city in macabre ink-spots.
Ultimately, the questions regarding the design of a memorial in New York (and Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania) will have to deal with two questions: What must be forgotten and what must be remembered.
As a side note, I am indebted to the writings of Michel de Certeau (“Heterologies,” “The Practice of Everyday Life” and “The Writing of History”) as texts providing significant insight into these topics. National Public Radio has begun a series of interesting segments with the “Lost and Found Sound” project producing a Sonic Memorial recording the aural memories of the World Trade Center towers. The NPR project is a compelling argument against concrete memorials: how the space of memory is filled with voices and sounds impossible to design into an object.
Critics will say I am being entirely impractical– overlooking the need for office space in Manhattan and a place for people to remember the dead. Maybe I am being impractical, but then I would argue the original World Trade Center towers were equally impractical– buildings too big for any memorial to capture in well designed sentiment. What remains of the impractical towers, a large crater in the center of America’s financial stronghold, says more about hubris than any dedication to the dead.
On Sept. 11, 2112, when most of us who lived the 111 years previous are long dead, perhaps a small group of people will gather around a large hole in downtown Manhattan (built over, around and beyond) to stare into the void and wonder how it all happened.
Most of the details will have also died, and the official body count will remain the one statistic of importance. Maybe, just maybe, a person will stare into the absence and stop to ask: How was this not preventable? That is what I hope a palindrome can accomplish.
John Troyer is a columnist for the Daily Minnesotan. He can be reached at: email@example.com