In the December issue of First Things, editor R.R. Reno discusses his recent visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Though he went in part to see the panels that commemorate friends who died there, he is uncomfortable with the memorial’s emphasis on individual — rather than corporate — mourning. Reno finds that in eschewing any kind of collective experience, the memorial becomes little more than a cold reminder of death as a nihilistic end devoid of any collective meaning.
Men do not erect public monuments and memorials to serve as objective, dispassionate records of historical events. At their best they shape our consciousness of the past for the sake of our common life in the future. Therein lies the failure of the 9/11 Memorial. A quiet, peaceful place of repose amidst a busy city — it will be cherished by future Wall Street workers as a nice place for lunch on a sunny day. But its design serves no future, conjuring instead the blank, perpetual, unchanging power of death, and encouraging the atomizing particularity of personal memory.
Reno claims that he isn’t against the simple modernist aesthetic in some cases, particularly as used in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington. Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam wall, was on the 9/11 Memorial jury, and the influence shows: the long subterranean wall of nearly 60,000 names, with little ornament or room for decorative shrines or imagery, echoes the sunken pools and engraved name plates recently installed in Lower Manhattan.
But Reno finds that because of the Vietnam wall’s geographical context — on the National Mall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and numerous other monuments to a great American story — it “purifies patriotism rather than undermining it.” In contrast, the postmodern 9/11 Memorial lacks a counterbalancing context, but also fails in part because it doesn’t remember soliders called by duty to their country, but rather ordinary civilians going about their daily lives. This misses the point of collective mourning, says Reno, who contends that these “atomized” individuals must instead stand for a moment of much larger significance, in which
[They] died because Osama bin Laden planned a terrorist attack, not on them as individuals, but on us as Americans. They died as citizens and residents of a global superpower. It is dishonest to suppress this fact, as the 9/11 Memorial does.
All of this has come about, Reno argues, because “contemporary elite opinion tends to adopt a postpatriotic mentality.” Americans are so afraid of the way that “mid-century totalitarianism perverted patriotism,” that they now instead turn to what Reno, borrowing from sociologist Philip Rieff, calls a state-sponsored “therapeutic approach.”
America may indeed be “postpatriotic” and suffering from Rieff’s “triumph of the therapeutic.” But left unexamined in Reno’s analysis is whether 9/11 — apart from the unquestionably appropriate memorialization of the dead — ought to have such a prominent place in America’s civic religion, and whether the way it shaped America’s role in the last decade should be uncritically celebrated. Andrew Bacevich has questioned this notion recently:
Did 9/11 “change everything”? For a brief period after September 2001, the answer to that question seemed self-evident: of course it did, with massive and irrevocable implications. A mere decade later, the verdict appears less clear. Today, the vast majority of Americans live their lives as if the events of 9/11 had never occurred.
But the War on Terror justified by 9/11 has cost Americans $1 trillion and counting, not to mention 7,500 additional casualties of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remembering these facts should be a challenge for the yet unopened exhibits of the museum that will accompany the outdoor memorial. If patriotism is still about advocating for a way forward that serves that national interest — and thus preserves the republic — there would be nothing unpatriotic about an acknowledgement of the mistakes that stemmed from the emotional days following the attacks.
At the same time, Reno is right that the memorial should have included some more uplifting and less particularistic experiences alongside the plain list of names and voids created by the large pools. Perhaps images of the firemen and police who unselfishly sacrificed their lives out of duty to their neighbors and countrymen — symbols less easily twisted for jingoistic nationalism than enormous flags or reassertions of American exceptionalism — might have taken center stage as symbols of individual human virtue for higher purposes.
Memorials today are a tricky business, in part because they face a secularization of common life, the “naked public square” famously denounced by Reno’s predecessor, Father Neuhaus. Civic leaders can no longer build chapels, or any way utilize religious symbols, which might serve as a counterbalance to perversions of patriotic sentiments and remind citizens of a pre- (not post-) modern idea: the state may have been attacked or sent them to war, but it is not the ultimate arbiter of justice or the best place to look for consolation of grief.