9/11: A lapse of memory

Posted: September 12, 2012

By Charles B. Strozier and Scott Gabriel Knowles

The typical student entering college this fall was in second grade on Sept. 11, 2001. She may have little or no memory of the day itself; hers has been a youth set against the backdrop of the post-9/11 world.

Partly for that reason, the sites of public historical memory of that day - our 9/11 memorials and museums - have the responsibility not only to memorialize the dead, but also to educate and foster debate about the day's place in our national history.

The cost of avoiding that debate is illustrated by New York's confusing Sept. 11 memorial, as well as the frustrating and continuing delays in opening the memorial museum. The huge expense of the memorial's construction - estimates vary widely, but it's certainly in the hundreds of millions - is worrisome, as are expected maintenance costs of as much as $60 million a year. Such spending could maintain 8½ Gettysburgs. Is such grandiosity sustainable - or appropriate?

The Manhattan memorial is also disturbingly macabre and unnecessarily abstract. It features water falling 30 feet (for no particular symbolic reason) into a pair of giant, ominous, square holes. Its two representations of the building "footprints" are exactly alike, a redundancy that reflects the towers but evokes no real memorial significance. Only the names of the dead, etched in marble, have the kind of meaning likely to touch visitors; the names of Todd Beamer (the Flight 93 passenger who famously called out, "Let's roll!") and Father Mychal Judge (the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department) have been rubbed so often that they have already been repaired more than once.

There were missed opportunities to embrace the clash of opinions in a democracy instead of postmodern abstraction and bland patriotism. Why not preserve the piece of the outer wall of one tower that stood majestically on the pile, which former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello described as a "relic of destruction" and "in its own way, a masterpiece"? And why not include some of the beautiful and spontaneous personal memorials from Union Square, some of which are preserved in the New York State Museum in Albany and the New York City Archives (of all places)?

Rush to memorialize

We have found the right tone for such commemorations before. It took a generation for our national memory of the Civil War to be inscribed, and more than a century before we reached some degree of consensus that slavery was at the core of the conflict but was not the only aspect of the war that merits memorialization.

American memorials have usually unfolded over the course of generations. It's only been since the Vietnam War that we have been in a "rush to memorialize." In the case of Vietnam, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 9/11 attacks, the speed of memorialization might have something to do with a groping for meaning that was not required after World War II and the Civil War.

Hungry for knowledge

Our own experiences teaching about Sept. 11 have shown that students and the public are hungry for knowledge about America's post-Cold War foreign policy, the rise of al-Qaeda, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the construction of the Twin Towers, and the ways survivors have coped with the disaster. Our students have learned about and discussed these issues critically without damaging their larger ideological commitments, and without disrespecting the dead.

It's high time that our memorials and museums took on these topics vigorously and creatively, too. We hope the memorials and museums we invest with the duty to remember and educate us about 9/11 will one day lead the way to more democratic and useful memorialization.

They will not succeed in doing so through abstraction. We need exhibits, conferences, documentaries, and curricula that situate Sept. 11 within its larger context. The memorialization of the day should not be sealed away from the public, nor should it remove or dumb down the historical contingency and complexity of Sept. 11 as a day of national and international significance.


Charles B. Strozier is a psychoanalyst, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the author of "Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses." Scott Gabriel Knowles is an associate professor at Drexel University and the author of "The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America."

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