As I look out over the national Mall in Washington, I can see them building the new World War II Memorial. The monstrous excrescence on the clean lines and open space of the Mall is scheduled to be finished next spring and has at least the merit of inducing the National Capital Planning Commission to ban all future memorial projects there. I wish they also had the power to decree that all future monuments everywhere would be limited to the size of a small brass plaque, but our demand for therapeutic monuments, like the empty chairs of Oklahoma City, is sure to prove too strong.
This is expecially true, I expect, at the World Trade Center site. Ever since the tragedy of two years ago, it has attracted sad little notes and personal mementos from visitors, or what one observer has called the “Diana-fication” of our grief for what happened there. Now, as James Traub writes in The New York Times Magazine, “The competition to design a memorial to those who died provoked an astonishing 5,200 proposals, the great majority from nonexperts who were plainly moved to use design to express their feelings about the catastrophe.” For such people, designing a monument is equivalent to dropping off a teddy bear at the site.
Interesting and important as such feelings no doubt are to their feelers, they do cause them and others to take their eyes away from the task of remembering those who can feel no more. I keep thinking, too, about the Holocaust Museum just down the street from the World War II monument in Washington, which a decade ago pioneered the new memorial trend of asking visitors to write little messages expressing how they feel about what they have seen. Though this practice may offer some relief to the powerful feelings of the visitors, you can’t help reflecting that it is rather a trivialization of the solemnity with which the museum otherwise asks us to regard the sacrifice of the victims it commemorates.
Of course it is true that all monuments and memorials are memorials less to the heroes or victims they ostensibly commemorate than to ourselves, and to our feelings about them. We need to assuage our survivors’ guilt by lavishing unending attention on those who did not survive, and we all have survivors’ guilt when it comes to the victims of 9/11. The attacks were so sudden and unexpected, the hand of death upon the undeserving so random that even more than other public deaths that touch us closely, these deaths remind us of our own mortality. But there is also something fundamentally false about such feelings. As Philip Larkin writes of the poignancy of A Young Lady’s Photograph Album,
. . .in the end, surely, we cry
Not only at exclusion, but because
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was
Won’t call on us to justify
Our grief, however hard we yowl across
The gap from eye to page.
Grief is also, that is, especially for those of us whose loss is not a personal one, a form of self-indulgence. A good monument should provide a necessary check to the sense of self-congratulation that memorializing inevitably brings with it. There is something to be said for the older practice of erecting an equestrian statue to the odd general or president but leaving the memorializing of the poor bloody infantry — or in this case the poor bloody bond trader — to their loved ones. In the end, the democratization of heroism will mean the end of heroism. If everyone is a hero, then no one is a hero.
We affect to prefer the humble hero to the Great Man — the Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns who have hitherto dominated the public spaces of the capital — at least until we need the latter in Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever place will serve as the next theatre of operations to which the events of September 11 lead us. But in doing so we really exalt ourselves. All those ordinary victims are easier to regard with fraternal feelings, to mix with in spirit and to sentimentalize about. How hard, finally, it is to learn that we are not called on to feel but to do, not to leave our own mark on a site of national importance and tragedy but to take away its mark upon ourselves. But isn’t that the way to true humility?
— James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and American editor of London’s Times Literary Supplement.