The 9/11 Memorial: The Voids

There are two memorials for 9/11 at the site of the World Trade Center (“Ground Zero”). The first, the Memorial proper, is a park of around eight acres, consisting of paved space, rows of trees (swamp oaks) and grass, and concrete benches. Within this space are two large square pits (“pools,” “voids”), each of which has water cascading down its walls, disappearing into a smaller square hole in the center. Surrounding each pool is a low wall with the names of those who were killed on 9/11, and also of those who died in the car bombing of 1993, displayed along the top surface. A strangely off-kilter two-story building close to the two pools provides the entrance to the underground Memorial Museum, the second memorial (on which more shortly).

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The Memorial opened on September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attack. The initial response was overwhelmingly positive. The New York Review architectural critic, Martin Filler, well known for his acerbic comments on modern architects, was moved to tears. The memorial was, he wrote, “a sobering, disturbing, heartbreaking, and overwhelming masterpiece.” When I visited the Memorial I was somewhat less overwhelmed, and was certainly not moved to tears. But I was impressed nevertheless. Despite the enormous pressures — from family members, politicians, property developers, newspapers — the designer, Michael Arad, had produced a memorial with an appropriate measure of dignity and restraint. It provided recognition of those who had died, without turning the site into a cemetery. Arad said that he wanted the Memorial to be integrated into the life of downtown Manhattan (a view shared by property developers) and it seemed to me that the park might achieve this. I imagined that in time the tree-lined area surrounding the pools would become a place of everyday activity, but activity informed by a the nearby presence of loss.

But I also had a sense of disappointment, an uncertain feeling that the area did not quite work. The only specific criticism that I had at the time seemed to me a petty one, that the list of names set on the walls (arranged in “meaningful adjacencies”) seemed sparse, as if there were not enough of them to fill the space allotted to them.

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This seemed like a mean-spirited response, and I put it down to a sensibility calloused by too many viewings of the seemingly endless lists of names packed together on memorials of war and the Holocaust. I kept it to myself.

It was on a later visit that my worries started to take on a more definite shape. I began to think that there was something banal about the pools and the water rushing down the walls to disappear into the center pit (and, assuming that it is recycled, to return again and again). The noise was a distraction: it did not simply drown out conversation; it also drowned out thought. I realized that my worry about the sparseness of the names was a symptom of a deeper problem: at around an acre each, the pools were simply too big. As Marita Sturken remarked, “the pools are so outsized that it is practically impossible to have an experience of intimacy there” (p. 477). But size was not the only problem: another was shape. The pools are, precisely, square, and this is surely the most inelegant of all purely geometrical shapes. The two pools are simply two large, block-like holes in the ground. The shape and size was not the choice of the designer. It was part of his brief that the Memorial should recognize the exact sites (the ‘footprints’) of the towers. This meant that they inherited the clumsy monumentality of the original buildings, only partially concealed by the rushing water. It also meant that the space around the pools could only be filled by the nearly 3,000 names of victims by the use of large letters and leaving spaces between them.

Many have compared the 9/11 Memorial with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington (and Lin herself was on the committee that selected Arad’s proposal). Whatever the problems that Lin had to deal with, she was free of the challenge posed by constructing a memorial on the actual site on which a disaster occurred. The 9/11 Memorial was on “sacred ground,” the place where so many were killed. It contained the remains of over one thousand bodies that had never been recovered. Many who had lost loved ones had strong views on what should and should not be done and they made these views known. (The New York Post labeled one particularly active group “the grief police.”) Even without the pressure of the families, the location was a challenge. Because the memorial was on the actual site of the disaster, there was an overwhelming temptation to allow the site itself to do the work of memory. The two pools inherited the graceless mass of the twin towers, so that they might stand for the lost buildings through a kind of mimetic immediacy.

Maya Lin did not have this temptation. She was free to create a form that was both aesthetically, morally, and (as I will suggest later) politically appropriate to the loss of 58,000 US service personnel. Imagine for a moment that the committee responsible for the Memorial had been able to free itself from the temptation to preserve or mimic what had been lost, and had simply invited submissions from leading sculptors, artists of the caliber and experience of Richard Serra and Michael Heizer, to submit proposals, leaving it up them how they provided appropriate recognition of the individual and collective tragedy of 9/11. If immediacy was desired, they might have been encouraged to make use of material from the destroyed buildings. Whatever they had come up with, it is a sure bet that they would have provided a memorial setting that was more appropriate, both to the loss of three thousand lives and to the thought that the memorial might contribute to the rebuilding of life and activity in the downtown area.

As it happens, it seems likely that Arad drew inspiration from one of the artists I have mentioned. His two pools bear a striking resemblance to one of the pits in Heizer’s ‘North, East, South, West’ at Dia, Beacon:

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But Heizer’s work consists of four separate pits, each with its own shape. Their size is appropriate. Each is large enough to allow, indeed to demand, attention on its own, but they are small enough to allow a viewing of their contrasting shapes as part of the work as a whole. There is no need for waterfalls to enhance (or conceal) the work’s austere and forbidding beauty.

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Let me return to names. It has been a feature of memorials at least since the First World War that they contain long lists of names of those who died. It is more than a little paradoxical that in a century that has seen so much slaughter, there has been a powerful concern to memorialize each of the victims. There is no doubt that they are effective. The enormous length of the lists provides a striking recognition of the mass of those who died, while the fact that every entry is the name of one of those who died is reminder of that each loss is a specific tragedy. The names also provide a point of contact for those family members, friends, and relatives who wish to mourn a specific loss. Lin’s Vietnam Memorial provides for all of this, not least because it has a size and a form appropriate to the number of those who died; Arad’s pools are simply too big. Of course, the names are accessible, both to those whose loss is personal and to the more detached visitor. But in a way they are too accessible. The top of the wall on which the names are displayed might otherwise be the place that visitors would rest their arms or elbows as they looked into the waterfall below. I did not actually see anyone doing this, perhaps because it seemed disrespectful. Perhaps also, it might have attracted the attention of one of the many attendants whose role seems to be ensure that visitors obey the signs calling for the ‘proper decorum’ suitable to a “place or remembrance.”

Arad’s original design envisaged that the names would be displayed in galleries built underneath the two pools, and this would have allowed a more intimate and reflective viewing. This proposal was dropped largely for financial reasons (though the grief police argued against it, likening it to a parking garage) and the names were relocated on the wall surrounding the pools. As it turned out, this relocation made possible a much larger and much more expensive underground construction: the Museum. So let us move underground.

The National 9/11 Memorial Museum: Memory as Trauma

The Museum opened in May 2014. It is accessible through a strangely tilted glass building close to the pools, and on the occasions that I have visited, there have been long lines of people waiting to get in. It occupies a vast space under the two pools, a space that is appropriate since some of the major exhibits are what remains of the foundation of the original buildings. Near the beginning of their visit, viewers (I almost said pilgrims) are invited to look at the enormous “slurry wall,” that functioned to keep the waters of the nearby Hudson River at bay and somehow, with symbolic resistance, continued to do so even as the towers collapsed. There is twisted metal in abundance, what is left of the stairs down which many of the survivors escape, the remains of a fire engine, and much else. We are told of the engineering achievements embodied in the buildings and — again and again — of their enormous size (the weight or various materials, the length of the pipes, the number and speed of the elevators, etc.). There is something Titanic-like in the pride in the achievement in the presence of the twisted and charred remains. It is hard not to marvel at the enormity of the destruction brought about by eight determined men armed with box cutters.

As we move beyond the slurry wall to the rest of the museum, we pass through a large passage. On one wall there is a message, taken from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

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Many have commented on the inappropriateness of this message. The “you” whose memory is to be preserved were two Trojan soldiers, Nisus and Euryalus (lovers, but let that pass) who had slaughtered a larger number of enemy soldiers in their sleep, and were themselves killed (Euryalus sacrificing himself on behalf of his younger comrade) as they returned to the Trojan camp. As a classics professor observed in the NYT, the quotation is more applicable to the 9/11 hijackers than to those whom they murdered. But the choice of text is bizarre for another reason. If the message is understood as a message addressed to the three thousand victims of 9/11, it requires that Virgil’s original addressees, those “never to be erased from the memory of time,” have been forgotten. The promise to remember is made on the basis of a forgetting.

This apparent paradox would not have surprised Virgil: his promise of an enduring memory for his two heroes was based on their role in the foundation of the Roman imperium, and it was conditional on the survival of that imperium. The passage continues: “while the House of Aeneas lives beside the Capitol’s immobile stone, and a Roman leader rules the Empire”. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the promise was void. This should serve as a reminder that memorialization is more often than not a political project, and that even ‘the memory of time’ is vulnerable to the fate of that political project. Virgil was at least clear about the specific project the memory of his heroes was to serve. What then is the political project served by the 9/11 Museum? As we shall see, the answer to this question is not quite so clear.

It may be that those who chose this quotation had a vague memory that it was Virgil, the pagan poet, who had been assigned the task of guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. This lends a certain appropriateness, if not to the choice of text, at least to the choice of author. For as visitors pass beyond the message, they find themselves if not in hell then at least something approximating it.

At the core, perhaps we should say at the heart, of the Museum, is the ‘Historical Exhibition’. This consists of various connected spaces devoted to recreating the attack on the buildings as it was experienced at the time. We watch as morning TV programs are interrupted by the news of the first plane hitting the North building. We watch a reporter or technician setting up his equipment to report on the first crash, as the second plane hits the South Tower in the background:

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We see firefighters going about their business, doing what they have been trained to do, even though they must know that they are facing a disaster far beyond anything envisaged in their manuals. We listen to the voice messages left by office workers trapped in buildings and passengers in the doomed airliners as they try to find the words to bring some comfort to their partners, wives, husbands and children. We see men and women clinging to the side of the building, waiting to jump or fall to their deaths. The report of one witness is displayed:

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My first memory of this report was so vivid that I imagined that I had actually seen a photo or a video of the woman arranging her clothes as she prepared to jump. But there are photos enough:

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It is impossible not to be moved by this display. But we must ask: In what direction are we moved? To what end?

A clue is given, unintentionally perhaps, by Marita Sturken. In her account of the Museum, she notes that it does not follow a coherent chronological development, especially in the arrangement of exhibits in the historical section. She concludes that the “museum does not achieve a very basic aim of standard exhibition design, which is to take visitors through a meaningful trajectory” ( p. 481). But Sturken underestimates the sophistication of the design. The heart-rending, emotionally involving, chaotic scenario that is presented works to take the viewer back to the event as it was experienced at the time, that is, at a time when no one really knew what was happening. The chronological, and also spatial, incoherence is designed to provide an experience of the shock and chaos, as well as the courage, pathos, and death, of that morning. The lack of a “meaningful trajectory” is the meaningful trajectory.

Many commentators have described the display as traumatic.[i] I think that we should take this suggestion very seriously indeed. However, the term “trauma” needs to be used with care. Originally, it was used to refer to a physical injury, a wound, and perhaps the accompanying shock. However, through a familiar conceptual slippage, the term has come to refer, not to the shock itself but to one of its characteristic after-effects. This is the condition in which a person does not merely experience the shock (the traumatic event) at the time, but finds him- or herself re-experiencing it again and again. The person suffering (and the word is appropriate) from trauma is not in control of these repetitions, and in many cases each repetition is accompanied by intense and painful emotions (fear, anxiety, shame), sometimes when these emotions were not experienced at the time. The repetitions are enormously distressing and disruptive.

What is especially characteristic of traumatic memory is that the past event is remembered or, better, re-experienced, as if it were present. In more familiar cases, when we recall an episode, we do so from a dual perspective. One perspective is that of the past: we recall what it was like to be in that place at that time. The other perspective is that of the present: we are aware that the event we are remembering happened in the past. It is a matter of surprising difficulty to explain just what this sense of “in the past” consists of, and I will not attempt to do so here. But part of the story is that when I remember an event, I now know, what I then did not, what happened afterwards. Sometimes these two perspectives are distinct; but more often than not, the past and present perspectives are fused, and the I that remembers and the I that is remembered are one. In these cases, the duality emerges in the way in which our awareness of the past event is informed by later knowledge. The act of memory is not merely the recovery of a past experience, but is a recovery informed by knowledge that was not available at the time.[ii] It is this duality of perspective — of the then and the now — that informs our sense of ourselves as having a past (and also a future). It also (though this is a much longer story) gives rise to our sense of time. What is characteristic of traumatic memory is that it does not provide, or even allow this dual perspective. We are thrown into the past, and the past event becomes part of our present. Time is dissolved in immediacy.

The effect, and surely the aim, of the 9/11 Museum is to make visitors experience what it was like to be there at the time. It places them in a situation where, like the participants, they only know that something supremely awful is happening, but where they do not know why it is happening, or what is to come. And the Museum does this with amazing skill and, as far as I can tell, effectiveness (though I have some doubts about how it will work in the longer term). It does so in various ways: through the fact that we are in the actual site of these events; by the use of relics — objects that bear the physical imprint of the attack, clothes and helmets worn by firefights as they went about their duty; by the use of photos, of newspapers and TV programs of the day, in which we see people reacting to and trying to make sense of what is happening. Everything works towards eliminating the temporal distance between the present and the past. The shock of 9/11 becomes eternally present. And as we are invited to share the perspective of that day, we become as ignorant as those whom we observe dying or surviving, doing their best to help or simply to escape.

No doubt there are many situations in which trauma is an inevitable, and even an appropriate response to immense disaster. But it remains a pathology, something to be overcome. And this is not merely because it is the source of misery and disruption; it is also because it involves a failure to know and to understand the past. To overcome trauma involves establishing a sense of temporal distance between the past event and the present. Those who suffer trauma must learn to use the past tense. “This happened.” It will then be possible to remember the past with that duality of perspective characteristic of less pathological memory forms. This does not mean forgetting what happened. Nor, in cases of loss, does it mean ceasing to mourn those who died.

The project of the Museum is to create traumatic memory, that is, memory as pathology. It asks us to become prisoners of a past that we do not understand. It is a project based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of memory. Non-pathological memory brings to bear present knowledge (or ignorance) on the past. In so doing, it locates the past event in a temporal order. The work of memory is that of doing justice — both epistemic and moral — to the past; it involves the recognition that we have a perspective that is not that, not could have been that, of those who experienced the past. This is as true of personal memory as it is of the collective memory projects of museums and memorials. Traumatic memory is a disorder, a pathology, because the very immediacy of the past destroys the perspective of the present, a perspective that is necessary to understand the events in their temporal context. No doubt survivors and witnesses of 9/11 were traumatized by it. This is their burden. But for the 9/11 Museum to undertake the project of traumatic memory is irresponsible. It is not a contribution to understanding the suffering of those who survived or those who lost loved ones. But even more important, it is not a contribution to understanding the day itself.

Of course, there is more to the Museum than the “Historical” Exhibition. There is an appallingly inadequate attempt to sketch in the historical antecedents (the rise of Al-Qaeda) and a little more space is given to subsequent events, including photos of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, protest marches, and so on. (There is even, bizarrely, a brick taken from the house in which Osama Bin-Laden lived.) But these are afterthoughts. They are inadequate if taken as history, even as history in the most neutral and schematic sense. And they have nothing like the impact of the presentation of the events of 9/11.

The Politics of Traumatic Memory

What are the effects of constructing 9/11 as a traumatic memory? One is that it is removed from history (hence my use of scare quotes around “Historical Exhibition”). A trauma is experienced as part of a perpetual present, and it does not have the temporal distance that is necessary for historical reflection. Insofar as it is the memory of a shock, it is of an event that comes from nowhere. It reinforces the sense of innocence; the lack of awareness of the American involvement in the outside world that is such a prominent feature of our cultural memory (See Sturken 2007). Why would anyone do such a thing? “Because they hate our freedom,” said George W. Bush. What else could it be?

There is no doubt that the shock of 9/11 was a major contribution to the stupid, immoral, and destructive foreign policy of the next few years. The Administration declared a War on Terror, with the enthusiastic support of Congress, political leaders, and the media. The suggestion, made by Geoffrey Robertson and Noam Chomsky, that the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon be treated as a crime, and appropriate steps taken to apprehend the criminal was simply ignored. Instead of treating the attack as a breach of the law and seeking legal remedy (which in the circumstances would almost certainly have involved military action), the United States made a declaration of war against an enemy (“terror”) without a clear sense of who that enemy was and how it might end. It was to be a short step to the lies and deception that led to the Iraq War and to the illegalities (and worse) that were to be part and parcel of the unending war on terror. Domestically, it led to the attack on civil liberties and the growth of the surveillance state. (I write this as France seems all too ready to make all the same mistakes.) Instead of using the rule of law as its most potent weapon, the United States has done its best to subvert it.

The Museum (full title, The National September 11 Memorial Museum) was decided on rather late in the piece (in 2006). In effect, it took the place of the proposed Freedom Center, a project that collapsed when it emerged that some of those involved took the notion of freedom seriously. No one apparently took the trouble to consider that a museum might aim to provide the material necessary for a fuller and more adequate contextualization of 9/11. Indeed, insofar as a museum should provide the materials necessary for an historical understanding of an event, it poses precisely the same challenge as the ill-fated Freedom Center: it must allow for divergent viewpoints. It is likely that the decision to construct a “museum” was made because it was not clear what else could be done with the enormous mass of material that was discovered during work on the site. It had to be treated with reverence, and the construction of the Museum provided an easy answer. Of course, it is a museum in name only: it is a memorial, a monument, and perhaps a shrine. These days, this might not count as a criticism. [iii] What is a criticism is that the Museum is designed to create an experience that destroys the temporal and reflective distance that is necessary to understand the events of that terrible day. And it does this with such skill that one can only assume that it was the intention.

Let me return to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial.

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This too was designed and constructed in a period in which there was immense controversy about the nature of the Vietnam War. The memorial does not address this controversy. It consists of 58,000 names displayed on black, polished granite, arranged as an extended, horizontal V. At the beginning of the list, after the date, 1959, there is a statement:

In honor of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War, the names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us.

And at the end of the list, after the date 1975, there is a further statement:

Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans. This memorial was built with private contributions from the American people. November 11, 1982.

This is memorial minimalism. It says explicitly only what might reasonably understood to be common ground to all, even those involved on opposite sides if the controversy. It recognizes not simply those who died, but the many who did not. It does not address the larger issues of why they died, of why the war was fought and lost, and of the political misunderstandings and deceptions used to justify it. This is its strength.

Lin’s memorial has had its critics. For example, Charles Griswold, after providing a sensitive and insightful account of the virtues of the memorial, charges that by avoiding taking any “political” stand (a condition of entry into the design competition), the memorial goes along with an affirmation of traditional, even reactionary values (the patriotic virtue of a soldier fighting in an unjust war). Insofar as the memorial seeks a common ground, it evades confronting the wrongness of the war and the dishonesty that led to the death, not merely of 58,000 Americans but of countless Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians. Of course, as Griswold recognized, a memorial of the kind he envisages would not have been constructed. Perhaps he would think that no memorial would have been better. But Griswold has too high expectations of what a memorial might do. A memorial cannot provide a history lesson, especially if it is one that would be rejected by most viewers. What a memorial can do is provide the cognitive and emotional space for the viewer to think about what is being remembered, and perhaps ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked. And it is the great achievement of Lin’s memorial that it does this.

There are various ways in which this is achieved. One is by absence. The memorial says nothing about the values for which the war was (allegedly) fought: Freedom and against the spreading contagion of Communism. It does not, indeed cannot point to a victorious outcome, nor to any other achievements that might have justified the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. The horizontal, flattened V is a reminder that whatever was achieved, it was not V for Victory. The very site of the memorial on the Washington Mall places it in conversation with many other symbols of American history; and its silent acknowledgment of wasted lives is a telling comment on the self-congratulatory triumphalism of the buildings and monuments that surround it. It is impossible to visit the Memorial, to walk along the seemingly endless list of names, without asking why so many died. Here, as often, the role of the memorial is not merely to recognize those who died, but to invite questions as to why they died. And to take those questions seriously is to confront just the issues that Griswold would like to be confronted.

One especially significant feature of the Vietnam Memorial is that the surface on which the names are engraved is mirror-like black granite. As viewers walk along reading the names, they cannot but see themselves reflected on the wall. If there is a temptation to lose oneself in grief or sorrow (and it is hard to describe how moving the experience is), one’s reflected image is a reminder of the reality of one’s separate existence, many years after the deaths recorded. In providing a reflected place for the viewer, it also provides a place of reflection.

It may be that Arad’s aboveground 9/11 Memorial is an attempt to achieve this distance. If so, it is a failure. It fails because, when it came to a certain point, the designers took the easy route. They succumbed to the temptation of letting the site do the work of memory for them. The failure of the underground Museum is of a different order of magnitude. The museum relies even more heavily on immediacy: this is the steel bent out of shape; these are the steps which took survivors down to safety and firefighters up to their death; this is the watch (a Rolex) worn by the passenger on Flight UA93 who led the struggle with the hijackers; and so on. But there is a much more subtle and sophisticated use of photos, videos, and news reports at the time, to convey a sense of confused but recognizable human responses in a chaotic situation. I have no doubt that the designers of the Museum succeeded in doing what they were trying to do. But what they were trying to do was not worth doing. It was not merely incompatible with but destructive to the work of memory — and of mourning, recognition, and understanding of what happened on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Above Ground

A final note: Michael Arad expressed the hope that his design would not only provide appropriate recognition of the tragedy of 9/11 but also make possible the revival of public life in that area. This was also the hope of many others involved in the planning (often, of course, for financial reasons). It was common knowledge that the previous World Trade Center had been an urban disaster, an unwelcoming and bleak dead spot in downtown Manhattan. No one could quite say this (it was a “public secret” as anthropologists might say), but many believed that the destruction of the old World Trade Center would provide an opportunity for a revival of urban life in the area. I have already suggested that Arad’s design was unlikely to achieve this. But whatever chance it might have had has surely been destroyed by the Museum. If any relaxation or levity is officially discouraged above ground, it is almost impossible to achieve this after a visit to the Museum. As far as I can tell, almost all the visitors are tourists. It is hard to imagine New Yorkers wanting to come more than once (I have been three times, but I put this down to professional masochism). As a tourist site it attracts the normal tourist kitsch (“Tour Ground Zero with a survivor!”), but delivered with a depressing solemnity. An affirmation of everyday public life in a world city, it is not.

It may be too early to tell. However, my guess is that the two Memorials at Ground Zero have managed to recreate the dead urban space that was destroyed with the twin towers. This is not simply an urban planning disaster. Arad was right in his thought that the appropriate way to remember 9/11 would be to make the absence a presence in the everyday life of those who live and work in New York City. Mourning is part of life; memory is an act in the present. It is not the least of the failures of the 9/11 memorials that they do not recognize this.


Greenspan, Elizabeth (2013). Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggles to Rebuild the World Trade Center (NY: St. Martin’s Press).

[i] I first heard this suggestion from Henry Rousso at a symposium at the Museum to mark its opening in May, 2014. Rousso had been taken through the Museum immediately after arriving in NY from Paris. See also Gopnik (2014) and Kennicott (2014).

[ii] I follow Peter Goldie here, especially his account of the role of what literary theorists call ‘free indirect style’ in memory reports. For example, when I remember making an insensitive remark at dinner last night, this report involves fusion of my experience at the time (making the remark) and my later judgment (that it was insensitive). See Goldie (2012), especially Chapter 2.

[iii] It is perhaps worth noting that the Director of the Museum, Alice Greenwald, spent the previous nineteen years at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, another institution that blurs the distinction between memorial and museum.