A reflection from someone born after 9/11

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The image of United Airlines flight 175 hitting the South tower of the World Trade Centre is burnt into the minds of all who lived through it. The tragedy of 2,977 deaths killed within hours is as unthinkable as the horror of the images which memorialise them, just as the repercussions of the events of that day were a turning point in American foreign policy.

As someone born after the events of that fateful day, 9/11 remains a bizarre nightmare for me, obscured by time and the restrictions which were implemented in response to the attacks. That anyone could conceive, let alone ruthlessly carry out such a plan on any country today, is unthinkable. We live in the hope that the fact that such an event happened once will make it impossible for it to reoccur. But hope is not enough.

The only way that I, and so many future generations can attempt to cross the gap, sealed by time, to those who lived through it, is by reaching out to what remains. The remanences of that day’s horrors have to be found in the memorials, which have been left behind. We seek understanding and enlightenment from the echoes of the past, and its victims. However, history can easily become inconsequential; reserved to the dusty corners of the past with no relevance to our modern world. That makes it all the important that the monuments which commemorate those events engage with future generations, and fortunately, the designers of 9/11’s ground zero memorial saw to it that this would be the case.

It was not immediately clear how 9/11 should be remembered. Some suggested that ground zero be turned into parks; a rejection of what had happened by turning something monstrous into something innocent. Others proposed leaving the site as it was; freezing time so that people would see 9/11 at its most brutal. Some advocated for rebuilding the towers taller than ever before; standing up against the fear and aggression which had torn them down.

Michael Arad and Peter Walker submitted their interpretation of how America’s shared grief should be manifested in 2003. With their creative efforts, the largest man-made waterfalls in North America were constructed in order to represent the unending nature of grief. Just as the water never fills the memorial’s pools, so America will never fully heal from the events of the eleventh of September. It is an odd accident of history that the skyscrapers which used to tower 546 meters above the city now tunnel 60 feet into the ground. Etched into the rim of the trade centre’s former foundations are the names of the 2,983 people killed not just in 2001, but in another attack on the centre in 1993 too. I wonder if those who lived through 1993 believed that the Trade Centre would never be attacked again.

Memorials should not be defined by the dead. They need to be defined by the memory of the living; only then can new generations engage with the past. The 9/11 memorial recognised this, and so the names of the deceased neighbour their colleagues and friends, so that death does not banish their lives to the cold bronze of the parapets. In some way, those memorialised live on; roses are placed on their names for their birthdays. Beyond the pools, 500 trees are planted. The contrast of death, or absence with the vitality of the trees represents the rebirth, of not just a city but of a country.

A further sign of the memorial’s ever evolving nature is the extension of the glade, in the southwestern quarter. It remembers those who became ill as well as those who lost their lives following the events of 9/11, from exposure and ingestion of toxins. As more is known about the moments of that day, the ground zero memorial is sure to adapt with the times. It is a piece of the past in the present, one which is accessible to all who seek it.

When designing the 9/11 memorials, fundamental questions had to be asked about the very nature of monuments. Questions such as: who are memorials for? Those who remember tragedies or those who cannot imagine them? One day, people will mark the date when no more people who lived through 9/11 are alive, just as we grimace when reminded of the ever-shrinking pool of world war two veterans who we can rely upon to relay events just as they were. We cannot command time or mortality, and so we must use the fragments of the past which endure to do what they cannot. Memorials must do more than document what has passed. They must convince us, in no uncertain terms, to never make the mistake of forgetting what has gone before. They must remind us that it is not, as it is usually noted, that those who forget the past commit its sins once again, but that it is those who think they are above the past who do so. Misplaced exceptionalism is the enemy of education. Memorials must force us to realise our own fragility as humans, and to understand that no matter how much time or distance separates us from tragedy, that it could easily be our own names inscribed upon the edges of the former trade centre.

More than that, they must convince us that those who are now gone were as alive as us once, a fact we should not, must not, will not forget. The memorial of 9/11 offers us comfort in that it is a memorial which strives to keep the memory of the dead in the minds of the living. With its aid, even those who could not experience the events of that day will understand what happened, in the fullest sense of the word. I can never truly know what happened on September the eleventh as someone born after it occurred, but with the restless work of those who do, through memorials or otherwise, I and future generations can understand it.