Large and Literal, or, What's Wrong With the Ground Zero Memorial

07.7.2005 | Tony Dokoupil | Cultural Affairs | 2 Comments

Memorials are best when simple. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, for example, invites the free mind to unexpected considerations of war by virtue of being undefined — the memorial is just names etched in black marble. Meanwhile, the contemporary designs for Ground Zero threaten just the opposite. The latest proposals are large and literal — bloated with equally unreflective strains of patriotism and anti-Americanism — and looking them over I find myself wondering what it is we are ignoring.

But first, a memory.

It happened in August of 1999, the summer after my senior year. A time when graduating high school baseball players want the beach, not baseball, and coaches must routinely drum up devotion just to keep a team. My coach, for his part, was earnest and sentimental in his approach. “Baseball, my boys, is the American Dream,” he said often, and with enough love to make most of us forgo the beach.  
But for Todd Listman, a player who’d spent most games slumping against the dugout wall since being passed over by college recruiters, this made sense of what had happened to him. “Dreams end,” he’d say to no one in particular, “We wake up.”   

He was right, of course. Dreams are fleeting constructs; reality always reclaims the day. Understanding this, the best we can hope for in our various lives isn’t longer, more persistent dreams, but a more dreamlike reality. Anything less is self-deception.

Not surprisingly, it took September 11th to make this clear to me, if not to the country. By then a sophomore outfielder for George Washington University in DC, I had two classes and two weeks of baseball practice suddenly cleared from my schedule, which left me time enough to think. Time enough also to take in obsessive amounts of national news and to notice (it wasn’t hard) that public opinion tended strongly toward one of two camps: reflection and retaliation.

Members of the latter camp floated words like patriotism, resilience, and unity. They fleshed their talk with suggestions of justice and World War III. Most enduringly, they organized the world into Bushies and Talibans, and invented a flat nationalistic distinction between the two: pro-American or anti-American, as if there were no negotiable space in between. As if questioning American foreign policy was akin to being uncertain about the hamburger or baseball.

“The American way of life is non-negotiable,” President Bush declared famously, his head out over the lectern, taking it all in. And at the time, our grief still deep, our anger still sharp, the assorted parade of rectitude was a welcome tonic, a sweet sounding balm.

Members of the reflective camp, by contrast, were less concerned with retaliation and assigning blame. They recognized that whether or not America brought hostility upon itself was less significant than the degree to which Americans had failed to pay attention. They grasped that something vital had collapsed with the towers: The American Dream that what is good for America is good for the world. Put another way, in the span of a morning, it was no longer possible to imagine that globalization — to the extent that globalization is the expansion of capital markets and free trade — was a purely beneficent force. Dreams end, after all.   

The irony of September 11th is that for once, the center caught up with the periphery. Welcome to the world, America, was the coldest phrase batted around in the days that followed. The rude but not groundless logic being that only for us living at the center could the friction of globalization seem a startling new phenomenon. To return to the idea of dreams, then, globalization can be understood as nothing but dreams being run into one. Friction is to be expected. Cities such as Belfast and Jerusalem, not to mention the many warring provinces of Sub-Saharan Africa, are fractured by terrorism and religious strife not because of commerce, but because of competing dreams.

Prior to September 11th the implications of this were as easy to ignore as were the dreams of nations and people outside of our own. “Why do they hate us?” Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek was bold enough to ask. To return to the contested rebuilding plans for Ground Zero, it seems we still don’t know.

Consider the master design plan: A well-intended but irrelevant “Defending Our Freedom” exhibit, complete with a look at American race riots, is planned for the Memorial Cultural Complex; a 1,776-foot tall steel monument to stubbornness, dubbed the “Freedom Tower,” is planned for the old south-tower footprint; and a tacky basement replete with crushed fire trucks, a fake waterfall and sentimental ready-for-purchase kitsch is planned for the memorial proper.

It’s time to rethink our dreams and our memorials to them, if for no other reason than as a necessary corollary to our world-changing foreign policy. Not because the fault for September 11th is ours but because the world about us has changed. Rebuilding Ground Zero is an opportunity to change with it.

It is no contradiction to believe we can design a Ground Zero that declares our proud heritage as Americans and reaffirms our commitment to a shared world. Why not something that attempts to convey the global repercussions and awakenings? Most of all, why not a simple, strong form that invites contemplation and echoes the timeless Le Monde headline from September 12, 2001: “We are all Americans.” After all, memorials shouldn’t make us cry or fight. They should make us feel our feet in the world and our bones beneath our skin. If a year from now I visit the new Ground Zero memorial and feel not like a man in the world, but like a tearful patriot, my mind filled with souvenir t-shirt choices, then a chance for us to wake up into a more dreamlike reality has been lost.

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