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Before and After: Reflections on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

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Posted on Jun 15, 2014

    An image of the former World Trade Center seen through the reflective windows of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Photo by AP/Craig Ruttle

By Bill Blum

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, form a pivot point in our history and collective imagination, separating what we recall, however naively, as the relative quiet of the late 20th century from the endless war on terror that still grips and shapes the 21st.

The recently completed 9/11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan—which I toured earlier this month—is an attempt to make sense of that pivot on multiple levels. The site is at once a building and an urban space dedicated to depicting the carnage of a tangible event in which the twin towers of the World Trade Center were brought crashing down in toxic clouds of fire and dust, and a “before-and-after” symbol, the phrase used by actor Robert De Niro in his narration on the museum’s audio guide to describe his own 9/11 journey as a native New Yorker. 

The museum’s website also explains the project’s mission as having several goals: bearing “solemn witness” to the attacks of 9/11 and the earlier Feb. 26, 1993, truck bombing of the World Trade Center; honoring the 2,983 victims of those incidents; paying homage to the survivors and first responders; and demonstrating “the consequences of terrorism on individual lives and its impact on communities at the local, national, and international levels.”

But does the many-faceted attempt at explication and symbol actually succeed? There is no question about the project’s artistry, the austere magnificence of the museum building, the gut-wrenching exhibits housed inside, or the sad and quiet beauty of the surrounding memorial park. Yet for all its pluses and with a construction price tag topping $700 million, the project as a whole fumbles the narrative of why the victims of 9/11 perished and what their tragic deaths have wrought for the rest of us. 

I made my first pilgrimage to Ground Zero less than a year after the two hijacked airplanes—American Airlines Flight 11 and United 175—had crashed into the north and south towers. Although most of the debris had been removed by the time I arrived, the attacks had left a yawning chasm that scarred the landscape. I stood awestruck and somber along with many others, including my two young sons, who had come to pay their respects, peering through the chain-link fences erected along the perimeter of what once had seemed an invulnerable fortress of trade and finance as teams of construction crews operating earthmovers, giant cranes and a procession of dump trucks worked to pave the way for eventual rebuilding.

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The first thing a casual visitor notices today, now that the rebuilding is nearly complete, is the sheer vastness of the undertaking. The Freedom Tower—a shimmering glass and steel obelisk of quartz-like perfection set to open later this year—tapers, some might say, in patriotic parody precisely 1,776 feet above the site, making it the nation’s tallest building.

Sitting below the new skyscraper is the park—an immense plaza officially opened in 2011. Spanning six acres, the park is lined with cobblestones and delicate swamp white oak trees selected from nurseries located in New York as well as Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the other two locations where on 9/11 hijacked planes slammed, respectively, into the Pentagon and an open field 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. 

The park showcases two 1-acre rectangular reflecting pools set in the footprints of the old twin towers. Each consists of identical sets of waterfalls that cascade down sheer 30-foot walls, and seemingly disappear into dark voids at their centers. The names of the victims of 9/11 as well as the casualties of the Pennsylvania and Pentagon crashes and those who died in the 1993 bombing are etched in bronze around the raised marble edges of the pools. Standing by the water, my eyes were drawn to the names. I touched some of the etchings and imagined, if only for a few seconds, the death, dying and horror each name signifies.

Death, dying and horror are very much the themes inside the museum as well. Fittingly, apart from an arching glass-encased atrium-style entrance and a second-floor auditorium, the bulk of the museum is windowless and underground, constructed deep into the bedrock. Guests descend as if passing through increasingly intense gates of despair 70 feet by way of a staircase that runs alongside the Tridents, the 80-foot tall neo-Gothic steel columns that stood outside the base of the Trade Center. Audio recordings broadcasting the prayers and remembrances of over 400 people from around the world can be heard as their words and geographic locations are projected on a series of free-standing vertical panels. 

At the bottom of the staircase, a winding walkway ramp empties onto a cavernous hall dominated by the Last Column, the enormous steel girder that was the final pillar hauled away from the tower wreckage. On one end of the giant chamber is the Slurry Wall, a pockmarked, iron-studded remnant from the original foundation that survived the destruction, flooding and fire. Around the bend, emblazoned on a striking wall of 2,983 blue tiles is a quote from Virgil’s “Aeneid”: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”


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