OFF THE BEAT: In the footsteps of giants

During my first visit to Washington, D.C., my mother insisted that we pay homage to the many markers of our American identity. Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, World War II, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — I remember walking among them all. Obelisks and colonnades and carved marble statues.

The grandeur was overwhelming.

And it occurred to me then, that the plaques and the pillars were more than just a way to commemorate victories or mourn losses. At a most basic level, monuments are built to instruct their viewers. They are how we as a nation tell the story of our shared experiences.

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down, America held its breath. There we were, looking into the void of something utterly unknown to us. The events of September 11 — all of them — were huge and painful and straight in our faces. We couldn’t turn away, we couldn’t simply choose not to see.

Only in the aftermath do we confront the question: How will we remember the moments that changed the course of our collective history?

We document moments with photographs and written accounts. We pass along stories to our children, to our children’s children. And we construct monuments to act as the manifestation of our memories, their great stone bodies imbued with projected emotion, knowing that we rely on these to preserve a national narrative.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2011, the National September 11 Memorial was revealed to the public — a pair of reflecting pools set in the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood.

I would like to take this opportunity to applaud architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker for the unorthodox approach they took when it came time to envision a design. For choosing not to build upward. For choosing not to glorify or embellish the Ground Zero site, but to honor the space for what it is now.

There is an emptiness in the New York City skyline, there is a wound in the flesh of the American people and this is an absence that is not meant to be filled.

Too often, we feel compelled to construct soaring monuments that honor what has been lost. We rebuild, believing that if something is not taller or more beautiful than the original, we’ve done its memory a disservice. But there’s beauty too in quiet. In modesty. In the simple act of acknowledging loss without trying to fill it with something new.

Seeking to make whole again is a dangerous game to play.

The National September 11 Memorial cuts down into the earth at Ground Zero, taking the craters made by the towers’ collapse and allowing that emptiness to speak for itself.

Yes, the sides have been smoothed and fitted with polished bronze, but the space has been left — left for all of us to stare at with wide eyes and reflect on the momentousness of absence.

You can pour in grief and love and loss and memory, and that space will never fill up. It is a fitting tribute; like a cut that never fully heals, the scar that forms is an apt reminder of the pain that was endured and the lasting impression it leaves behind.

There is a gravity that permeates these two markers of a collective American memory. And where most monuments rise up in triumph and splendor, the 9/11 memorial makes no claim on victory. No phoenix rises from the ashes. The design causes viewers to look down before they look up; you must reflect upon the past before you can move forward.

Some say that the memorial is weak — it lacks conviction and presents the men and women who died as victims without context. The minimalist style turns the loss of human life into abstraction; it disregards the American response to terror.

What makes the memorial remarkable, then, is that it refuses to politicize death. It doesn’t tell you what to think or who to be mad at. No one can deny that our nation saw evil that day, but on this hallowed ground, hatred toward evil’s perpetrators accomplishes nothing.

Staring into the streams of water as they pour over the memorial’s edge and form a single sheet, we are moved to consider who we were and what we have become, both as individuals and as a nation.

Ten years later, looking back is a sobering, but necessary, practice. A decade separates us from a day that forever altered the course of our history, and this distance prompts us to examine not only the “then” but also the “now.” In the wake of 9/11, our government has seen some big changes, but day-to-day American life remains relatively unchanged.

By and large, we go about our business, unscathed. We move forward, not on, and take the anniversary of a tragedy to reflect upon an ever-changing American identity.

We’ve settled in and found a new normal; this is the way we live now.