Reflecting Hubris

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The Billion-Dollar Gravestone
Reflections on Memorializing the Dead of 9/11

By Tom Engelhardt

Recently, a number — one billion — in the New York Times stopped me in my tracks. According to a report commissioned by the foundation charged with building Reflecting Absence, the memorial to the dead in the attack on the World Trade Center, its projected cost is now estimated at about a billion dollars and still rising. According to Oliver Burkeman of the British Guardian, “Taking inflation into account, $1bn would be more than a quarter of the original cost of the twin towers that were destroyed in 2001.”

For that billion, Reflecting Absence is to have two huge “reflecting pools” — “two voids that reside in the original footprints of the Twin Towers” — fed by waterfalls “from all sides” and surrounded by a “forest” of oak trees; a visitor will then be able to descend 30 feet to galleries under the falls “inscribed with the names of those who died.” There is to be an adjacent, 100,000 square-foot underground memorial museum to “retell the events of the day, display powerful artifacts, and celebrate the lives of those who died.” All of this, as the website for the memorial states, will be meant to vividly convey “the enormity of the buildings and the enormity of the loss.” Not surprisingly, the near billion-dollar figure does not even include $80 million for a planned visitor’s center or the estimated $50-60 million annual cost of running such an elaborate memorial and museum.

So what is Reflecting Absence going to reflect? For one thing, it will mirror its gargantuan twin, the building that is to symbolically replace the World Trade Center — the Freedom Tower. As the Memorial is to be driven deep into the scarred earth of Ground Zero, so the Freedom tower is to soar above it, scaling the imperial heights. To be precise, it is to reach exactly 1,776 feet into the heavens, a numerical tribute to the founding spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the nation which emerged from it; its spire will even emit light — “a new beacon of freedom” — for all the world to see and admire. Its observation deck will rise a carefully planned 7 feet above that of the old World Trade Center; and with spire and antennae, it is meant to be the tallest office building on the planet (though the Burj Dubai Tower, whose builders are holding its future height a tightly guarded secret, may quickly surpass it).

The revelation of that staggering billion-dollar price tag for a memorial whose design, in recent years, has grown ever larger and more complex, caused consternation in my city, led Mayor Michael Bloomberg to suggest capping its cost at $500 million, caused the Times to editorialize, “The only thing a $1 billion memorial would memorialize is a complete collapse of political and private leadership in Lower Manhattan,” and became a nationwide media story. Because the subject is such a touchy one, however, no one went further and explored the obvious: that, even in victimhood, Americans have in recent years exhibited an unseemly imperial hubris. Whether the price tag proves to be half a billion or a billion dollars, one thing can be predicted. The memorial will prove less a reminder of how many Americans happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on that September day, or how many — firemen, policemen, bystanders who stayed to aid others — sacrificed their lives, than of the terrible path this country ventured down in the wake of 9/11.

If the latest opinion polls are to be believed, Americans have grown desperately tired of that path and, as a result, the whole construction project at New York’s Ground Zero is likely to become emotionally obsolete long before either Reflecting Absence or the Freedom Tower make it onto the scene.

Memorials Built and Unbuilt

Let me offer a few framing comparisons:

1. Sometime in the coming week or two, the number of American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghan Wars will exceed the 2,752 people who died in or around the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (including those on the two hijacked jets that rammed into the towers). With a combined death toll of 2,739, the war dead have already crept within 13 of that day’s casualties in New York. Here’s a question then: Who thinks that the United States will ever spend $500 million, no less $1 billion, on a memorial to the ever-growing numbers of war dead from those two wars?

2. Or consider the prospective 9/11 memorial in this context:

The National World War II Memorial (405,000 American dead): $182 million for all costs.

The Vietnam Memorial (56,000 American dead): $4.2 million for construction.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial (54,000 American dead): $6 million.

The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor (2,390 American dead, 1,177 from the Arizona): $532,000.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial (168 American dead): $29 million.

The 1915 USS Maine Mast Memorial at Arlington Cemetery (260 American dead): $56,147.94

The Holocaust Museum in Washington (approximately 6 million dead): $90 million for construction/$78 million for exhibitions

The WTC Memorial (2,752 dead): $494 million-$1 billion.

3. Or imagine a listing of global Ground Zeros that might go something like this:

Amount spent on a memorial for the Vietnamese dead of their Vietnam Wars (approximately 3 million): $0.

Amount spent on a memorial to the Afghan dead in the civil war between competing warlords over who would control the capital of Kabul in the mid-1990s (unknown numbers of dead, a city reduced to rubble): $0.

Amount spent on a memorial to the victims of the December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (at least 188,000 dead): $0.

Amount spent on a memorial to Iraqis confirmed dead, many with signs of execution and torture marks, just in the month of April in Baghdad alone (almost 1,100), or the Iraqis confirmed killed countrywide “in war-related violence” from January through April of this year (3,525) — and both of these figures are certainly significant undercounts: $0.

The WTC Memorial (2,752 dead): $494 million-$1 billion.

The Victors are the Victims

The dead, those dear to us, our wives or husbands, brothers, sisters, parents, children, relatives, friends, those who acted for us or suffered in our place, should be remembered. This is an essential human task, almost a duty. What could be more powerful than the urge to hold onto those taken from us, especially when their deaths happen in an unexpected, untimely, and visibly unjust way (only emphasizing the deeper untimeliness and injustice of death itself). But where exactly do we remember the dead? The truth is: We remember them in our hearts, which makes a memorial a living thing only so long as the dead still live within us.

As an experiment, visit one of the old Civil War or World War I memorials that dot so many towns, undoubtedly yours included. You might (or might not) admire the fountain, or the elaborate statue of soldiers, or of a general, or of any other set of icons chosen to stand in for the hallowed dead and their sacrifices. I happen to like the Grand Army Plaza, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and dedicated to the Union Army, that fronts on Central Park in New York City, my home town; but it is, in a sense, no longer a memorial. Decades ago, it turned back into a somewhat gaudy, golden decoration, a statue — as all memorials, in the end, must. The odds are that few today visit it to remember what some specific individual did or how he died. To the extent that we remember, we remember first individually in our hearts in our own lifetimes — and later, collectively, in our history books.

And, of course, for most human beings in most places, especially those who are not the victors in wars, or simply not the victors on this planet, no matter how unfairly or horrifically or bravely or fruitlessly their loved ones might be taken from them, there is only the heart. For those dying in Kabul or Baghdad, Chechnya, Darfur, the Congo, or Uzbekistan today, the emotions released may be no less strong, but in all likelihood there will be no statues, no reflecting pools, no sunken terraces, no walls with carefully etched names.

There has, in American journalism, been an unspoken calculus of the value of a life and a death on this planet in terms of newsworthiness (which is often, of course, a kind of memorializing, a kind of remembering). Crudely put, it would go something like: One kidnapped and murdered blond, white child in California equals 300 Egyptians drowning in a ferry accident, 3,000 Bangladeshis swept away in a monsoon flood, 300,000 Congolese killed in a bloodletting civil war.

Call that news reality in this country. It’s also true, as the recent World War II memorial on the Washington Mall indicates, that Americans have gained something of a taste for Roman imperial-style memorialization (though, to my mind, that huge construction catches little of the modesty and stoicism of the WWII vets like my father who did not come home trumpeting what they had done).

Reflecting Absence and the Freedom Tower, however, go well beyond that. Their particular form of excess, of the gargantuan, in which money, elaborateness, and size stand in for memory is intimately connected not so much with September 11, 2001 as with the days, weeks, even year after that shock.

To grasp this, it’s necessary to return to the now almost forgotten moments after 9/11, after the President had frozen in that elementary school classroom in Florida while reading The Pet Goat; after a panicky crew of his people had headed Air Force One in the wrong direction, away from Washington; after Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush (according to former counterterrorism tsar Richard Clarke) started rounding up the usual suspects — i.e. Saddam Hussein — on September 11th and 12th; after the President insisted, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass”; after he took that bullhorn at Ground Zero on September 14th and — to chants of “USA! USA! USA!” — promised the American public that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon”; after his associates promptly began to formulate the plans, the “intelligence,” the lies and tall tales that would take us into Iraq.

It was in that unformed, but quickly forming, moment that, under the shock not just of the murder of almost 3,000 people, but of the apocalyptic images of those two towers crumbling in a near-mushroom cloud of white dust, that an American imperial culture of revenge and domination was briefly brought to full flower. It was a moment that reached its zenith when the President strutted across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 and, with that Mission Accomplished banner over his shoulder, declared “major combat operations” ended in Iraq.

The gargantuan Freedom Tower and the gargantuan sunken memorial to the dead of 9/11 are really monuments to that brief year and a half, each project now hardly less embattled in controversy, cost-overruns, and ineptitude than the war in Iraq or the post-Katrina rescue-and-reconstruction mission. Each project — as yet unbuilt — is already an increasingly controversial leftover from that extended moment when so many pundits pictured us proudly as a wounded Imperial Rome or the inheritor of the glories of the British Empire; while the administration, with its attendant neocon cheering squad in tow, all of them dazzled by our “hyperpower” (as other Americans were horrified by the hyperpower of al-Qaeda’s imagery of destruction), gained confidence that this was their moment; the one that would take them over the top; the one that would make the United States a Republican-Party possession for years, if not generations, the Middle East an American gas station, the world an American military preserve, and a “unitary” commander-in-chief presidency the recipient of the kinds of untrammeled powers previously reserved for kings and emperors. These were, of course, dreams of gargantuan proportions, fantasies of power and planetary rule worthy of a tower at least 1,776 feet high, that would obliterate the memory of all other buildings anywhere, and of the largest, most expensive gravestone on Earth, one that would quite literally put the sufferings of all other victims in the shade.

As those two enormous reflecting pools were meant to mirror the soaring “beacon” of the Freedom Tower, so the American people, under the shock of loss, experiencing a sense of violation that can only come to the victors in this world, mirrored the administration’s attitude. In a country where New York City had always been Sodom to Los Angeles’ Gomorrah, everyone suddenly donned “I [Heart] New York” hats or t-shirts and became involved in a series of repetitive rites of mourning that in arenas nationwide, on every television screen, went on not for days or weeks but months on end.

From these ceremonies, a clear and simple message emerged. The United States was, in its suffering, the greatest victim, the greatest survivor, and the greatest dominator the globe had ever seen. Implicitly, the rest of the world’s dead were, in the Pentagon’s classic phrase, “collateral damage.” In those months, in our EveryAmerican version of the global drama, we swept up and repossessed all the emotional roles available — with the sole exception of Greatest Evil One. That, then, was the phantasmagoric path to invasion, war, and disaster upon which the Bush administration, with a mighty helping hand from al-Qaeda, pulled back the curtain; that is the drama still being played out today at Ground Zero in New York City.

But those 2,752 dead can no longer stand in — not even in the American mind — for all the dead everywhere, not even for the American dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps it’s time not just to cut back radically on that billion-dollar cost, but to do what we should have done — and, if we had had another kind of leadership, might have done — starting on September 12, 2001. Taken a breath and actually thought about ourselves and the world; taken another breath and actually approached the untimely dead — our own as well as those of others around the world — with some genuine humility.

I know that somehow this memorial will be built; that, for some, it will touch the heart. But I also know that someday, maybe even yesterday in a country that now wants to forget much of what occurred as it was railroaded into a never-ending war, whatever is built at Ground Zero will mainly memorialize a specific America that emerged from the rubble of 9/11. That was the America that had stopped being a nation and had become a “homeland,” a country that should not have been using the numbers 1776 in any way.

Facing a building so tall, who has any need to approach a declaration of only 1,322 words, so tiny as to be able to fit on a single page, so iconic that just about no one bothers to pay attention to it any more. But perhaps, with that monumental invocation of its “spirit” in mind, it’s worth quoting a few of the words those men wrote back in the year 1776 and remembering what the American dead of that time actually stood for. Here, then, from a great anti-imperial document, are some passages about another George’s imperial hubris that you are less likely to remember than its classic beginning:


The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury: For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences… For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”

Someday, those reflecting pools and that tower will mirror so much of the rise as well as the fall of the Bush administration — not least of all its heck-of-a-job-Brownie incompetence and its inability to fulfill civil promises of any sort. After all, almost five years past the catastrophe of 9/11, after all the grandiose promises and the soaring costs, after all that “enormity,” there is nothing 1,776 feet in the air, nor, as yet, any hint of a gravestone over the dead of the tragedy of that day.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, is now out in paperback.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt