Clashes Over How to Memorialize 9/11 Show Our Strength

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The "Tribute to Light" memorial as seen from Bayonne, New Jersey. Emile Wamsteker / Bloomberg-Getty Images

Ironically, much of our attention to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks involves our distinctively American propensity to point to our own faults. Ten years have passed, critics moan, and One World Trade Center isn’t finished. Controversy lingers over both placement and content of the memorial at the site. (Even over whether the Latin inscription from Virgil is appropriate.) We are squabbling over prayer—or the lack thereof—at the dedication ceremony, and whether the planning has paid too much attention or too little to the families of those who died.

Why do we even build them—these memorials to life’s cataclysms, to the suffering and horror of the present hour? In theory we build memorials so that future generations will remember, but in practice they too often aid in forgetting. Too many times it is the memorial and not the tragedy that we recall.

The greatest oration ever delivered on American soil was Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg—the speech, says historian Garry Wills, from which “all modern political prose descends.” But Lincoln predicted, wrongly, that future generations would forget his words and remember the deeds of those who left their lives on the battlefield. Matters have worked out the other way around. The Gettysburg Address has become the stuff of legend, quoted in useful bits by politicians and pundits, memorized by schoolchildren. But who (if we are honest) remembers the battle?

In her difficult but fascinating book An Ethics of Remembering, the philosopher Edith Wyschogrod tells us that the great challenge in the wake of cataclysm is building “a community of shared experience.” We did share Sept. 11—briefly. For a powerful national moment, the tragedy belonged to all of us. Then our national community was rent asunder, and the tragedy with it, as we collapsed as usual into our separate warring tribes.

But this is America, and such disagreements—like the disagreements over the memorial—are evidence of what is right and not what is wrong with our nation. Our plurality, frustrating though it may be when you are certain your side is right, is a vital aspect of our distinctiveness. That tolerance of sharply different views lies at the heart of our democracy, and is worth cherishing, and fighting for.

It is important to remember that the attacks were not just on America, but on what America stands for. The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and who came so close to crashing another into Washington, D.C., were not the uneducated and oppressed detritus of neocolonialism. They were mostly middle class, educated, intelligent, and well trained. Blame if you wish American foreign policy; blame if you wish the fanatical version of Islam that inspired them; but you will be searching for the source of evil beyond the human heart from which it springs. The simpler explanation is that evil men did evil that day because they chose to.

The nation has real enemies, and the call to vigilance is perhaps the most prominent lesson of 9/11. Heeding it has led consecutive administrations to press the battle against terror groups abroad, before they can strike us—“eliminating our enemies,” in President Obama’s coinage. At home, with bipartisan support, we have built an ever larger and more intrusive national-security apparatus. That is understandable. But we must be sure never to implement security measures in a way that stifles the very dissenting voices that make America special, and worth specially protecting.

Dissent is democracy’s lifeblood. In the painful days after the attacks we stood united, our national resolve greater than the issues that divided us. The more familiar partisan squabbling into which our public debates have since collapsed is actually evidence of the vitality of our democracy. Still, we must not forget that brief moment of common purpose. Our task now is to discover what else besides tragedy might unite us. Because whatever monuments we might build, living as though we are in this great American experiment together is the most lasting memorial we can offer to those who died on 9/11.

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