A Darkness too Deep: The 9/11 Memorial

meidlingerI visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City this summer. I wanted badly for it to work.  It did not.

Good memorials allow us to have a profound emotional experience that brings us to a greater understanding of what it was like to have been there. They provide a sense of closure to a complex and difficult historical moment.  They touch us both as individuals and as members of the larger public, reminding us of our relationship to our collective past. Above all, good memorials allow us to re-experience the event being memorialized, and to emerge out of that experience back into ourselves, with a greater understanding of the causes and nature of human suffering, and with some notion of how we might learn from our own folly.

Every aspect of the 9/11 Memorial is beyond reach, literally and figuratively. I felt like I h9-11_Memorialad been dropped into the middle of a Peter Jackson film, all grand in scale, but inhospitable to human life or human emotion. It consists of two enormous squares, each located on the footprint of one of the two towers.  The names of the victims are etched into the marble that runs along all four sides of each space, but the marble is just too wide to wrap one’s arms around, and just too high to look over comfortably, and so seeing the water that drains into the center of the abyss at the center of the so-called reflecting pool is a strain.  Water is nice. Water offers the possibility of renewal and redemption. But this water flows into a deep, dark pool—distant and unreachable, as if what we suffered on 9/11 will never stop hurting.

National 9.11 Memorial - September 11, 2011 - Credit Joe Woolhead -140You won’t see anybody weep at the 9/11 Memorial, though I have seen many weep at other American memorials. Try going to Gettysburg or the Lorraine Motel. If you do not weep there, you are made of stone. Or Maya Lin’s extraordinary Vietnam War Memorial. Lin had to deal with the same difficult challenge that the architects of the 9/11 Memorial wrestled with:  to honestly confront the deep psychic wound left by the event, and, more difficult yet, contribute to the healing process. Lin’s work pulls this off better than any existing American Memorial. The names of each solider killed in Vietnam is engraved in a granite wall so polished that we the viewers are reflected in it—their suffering becomes our suffering.  The wall begins low, the walk down the wall a slow, gentle stroll, until we get to the bottom of the wall and are surprised how deep in the ground we are, the wall no longer a border but a gash in the landscape. What seemed like a cakewalk turns into a descent into hell, and at the bottom of Lin’s memorial, you will see people weeping, and you want to weep with them. The walk back out will be harder and steeper than we imagined, not least because are now carrying the grief of 50,000 fallen servicemen and women on our shoulders.


It is not as if 9/11 is an event that is still beyond our emotional reach. Other forms of art brought us closure, moral understanding, and perspective. Springsteen’s The Rising is an elegiac response that makes large the lives of those who survived precisely because they are like us – not heroes, but ordinary people (“You want courage? I’ll show you/ courage you can understand.”) And Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, told through the eyes of an adolescent boy, reminds us that, as painful as it is to lose our sense of invulnerability, we, too, can survive by reconnecting once again with those we love, and those we thought we would never know.

National tragedies inflict a collective wound. Memorials to those tragedies honor those who died, and those who survived, and re-enact symbolically the journey they made. As a nation, we will have to wait longer for a living memorial to help us take next step to understand what happened to us all 14 years ago.

Peter Meidlinger is VPAA for Academic Quality and Professor of English at Drury University 





  1. Thoughtful comments Peter.. I haven’t visited the 9/11 memorial either, but, for what I have seen, I can well understand your feelings.. The memorial for Ground Zero posed a different [and more difficult] challenge than the Vietnam memorial, because the tragedy happened there and the craters left by the twin towers were a given to deal with.. But yes, there’s a tone of grandiosity that is not necessarily the right way to represent the magnitude of the tragedy.. and the water looks too much of a cliche’ for a rather complex story.. A XX century great Italian architect, educator and theorist, Ernesto Nathan Rogers, noted that “monument” comes from the Latin words “moneo” [to admonish, but also to advise, to teach] and “memini” [to remember]… it seems that the 9/11 memorial failed on both aspects.. [I’ve been to Gettysburg, and, again, I agree with you…]. Thank you for the conversation.

  2. Karen Cordes Spence

    Beautiful sentiments of how the physical and emotional unite into a single expression. Capturing any experience is difficult, and to take on that task in a memorial tribute–whether a writing, music, art or architecture–is daunting. Maya Lin certainly got it right at the Vietnam Memorial. While I have not yet visited the 9/11 memorial, I’ve heard design friends note its shortcomings. Our emotions seem to need a space worthy of the expressions we need to make.

  3. Peter, Thank you for sharing this. I have not yet gone to the 9/11 memorial, but I distinctly remember my first visit to the Vietnam memorial when I was fifteen. It really was a life-chaging experience. The walk back up is indeed a heavy one, in all the ways that the word heavy suggests. Katie

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