Memorials as Commodities
9/11, the Brand
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, July 30, 2002
Get ready for September Eleven, the brand.
Between now and the first anniversary of that horrible day, Sept. 11 is going to be commemorated sometimes in the most moving ways, sometimes in the most humbling, even sublime ways: Greatness can be touched in spite of—and because of—the greatest tragedies. But Sept. 11 is also going to be commemorated in the most self-righteous and opportunistic ways any tragedy has been in this age of hyper media, pillaging businesses and dust-mite politicians. It is easy to make the prediction because previews of the spectacle began last Sept. 12 and have been building since, with each side of the profiteering triangle reinforcing the other’s perversion of the date.
The anniversary will call in the troops of cultural jingoism. Broadcast and print media will come up with logos, series and special sections, some of them legitimate attempts to bring perspective to what has transpired since the event, others merely wraps for fat advertising opportunities. Wall Street firms desperate to win back the favor of the millions they’ve swindled will outdo each other with flag-waving mission statements (never mind protocol about desecrating the Stars and Stripes), with minuscule donations that their press releases will magnify into generosity, with a day off so their employees, what’s left of them, can be with families not yet wrecked by economic anxiety.
And politicians: Woe be us on the receiving end of the cant, the rehearsed tears, the jostling for maximum bombast and indignation at the altar of Sept. 11. The coattails this election season don’t belong to W. the Emperor, who barely has clothes left anyway, but to The Date. A few isolated spots in Death Valley aside, there will be no place to hide. America and the world will be branded: This nation brought to you by September Eleven, and of course the corporate junta at whose behest (as the red, white and blue sponsors will subtly remind us from their tax shelters in Bermuda), the world must go on.
Anniversaries and the rituals surrounding them are extremely important to societies, as they are to individuals. They help preserve memory and the meaning of why we are what we are, reinvigorating hopefully the best in us, even if the ritual seems trite. Sept. 11 must be commemorated just as the site of the World Trade Center will be memorialized. The problem is when proportion and purpose are lost to expedience and self-congratulation. The problem is when the original event is remade into a stepping stone to something entirely divorced from its meaning. That something can be as ugly and self-serving as the original event should be meditative and humbling.
Examples abound of other nations turning memorials into cause for breast-beating. The bigger the memorials, the louder the arrogance, or insecurity. Think of Soviet statuary, or the self-aggrandizing monuments to the pharaohs, to Saddam Hussein. In 1982 Maya Lin showed how memorials could be much more than slabs of granite with her design of the Vietnam War Memorial. Sunk into the grounds of the Mall in Washington, D.C., the memorial is an awesome rendition of the private price of public folly, the more awesome for being understated. It struck a chord deeper than anyone expected. It also inadvertently made memorials hip: Memorials as tourist draws. And boosters thought: The bigger, the better.
Memorials as massive blares—or worse, economic development—began in Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building. The idea is striking, with two arches at either end of a reflecting pool, and the time before and after the blast imprinted atop the arches. But the thing is enormous. It is far bigger than the too-big World War II memorial planned for the Mall in Washington, D.C. And it is designed more as a money-making draw for downtown merchants than as a commemoration of the 163 people killed there on April 19, 1995. (A plaque celebrating “First Responder Teams” and other rescue workers is more hero-worship of those who did their job that day than reflection for those who died.) If Oklahoma City’s version of April 19 is preview to Lower Manhattan’s version of Sept. 11, architects might as well start looking for inspiration from Albert Speer instead of Maya Lin. That would be a tragedy in itself.
The branding of Sept. 11 is just such a tragedy. It is the Oklahoma City impulse of memorializing through grandeur writ large, with equally crass ends. President Bush, whose bumbling cluelessness has been laid bare again by the financial scandals, needs the day and a long warm-up to it for his own revitalization. Afterward, how better to franchise Sept. 11 than through the imminent initial public offering of homeland security?
The whole nation will have stock in that one. Even children (never too early to recruit snitches). Every American will be asked to build this massive memorial, whose beauty is that it’ll never be finished. Forget Speer, the architect for Greater Germany in the 1930s. Call in Babel. And the ribbon-cutting of this public folly at any price begins, naturally enough, at Ground Zero, on Sept. 11.