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Nigel Young: 9/11: Working in the Fields of Memory

September 9, 2011

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As we near the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it is important that we consider how we choose to remember.

By **Nigel Young**

nigel_website.jpgSeptember 11th is not just an American, or New York, anniversary. It is a moment to remember cities destroyed around the world in our recent past, whether by flood, earthquake or human destruction. Those in battle like Kursk and Stalingrad—or partly from the air like Warsaw or Berlin—or from the air alone like Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg or Nagasaki. The memorial museum In Flanders Fields stands in the reconstructed medieval cloth hall of Ypers (Ieper) in Belgium, a city razed in 1914 – 15 by bombardment. As you enter, a bold list of twenty modern cities destroyed in war serves as a “danger warning” of urbicide that (more than a mere day) deserves an ongoing global acknowledgment. For the ever-present threat belongs to us all.

Last year marked the seventieth anniversary of the bombing blitz of 1940 on London, and we were reminded of the scale of suffering of all the other cities destroyed from the air—a process that began less than a century ago but accelerated after 1940. In light of that anniversary, how should we deal with 9/11 this year?

Should it focus on individual grief or allow the space for the universal experience? To New York City’s great credit the democratizing of the debate about what should replace the Twin Towers was an impressive contribution to popular memory work; but the remembrance of the 2001 attack in Manhattan, Pennsylvania and DC is far too important to be focused narrowly on memorial pools, reflective centers and architects’ plans for the site; in short, aesthetics. The attacks’ perpetrators sought a global impact. Indeed, the attacks received a worldwide response, in part because people from around the world were killed in those attacks, in part because they were spectacularly recorded in real time.

The ugly project of “urbicide,” mainly focused on a “World Trade” Center, deserved more than an “Empire State” response. Perhaps it is not too late to address this. Berlin, London, Hiroshima and other targets all give pointers to how we remember urbicide. Whether concreting it over like the unrecognizable Hiroshima bomb’s epicenter or leaving it bare and raw like the camp territory of Birkenau/Auschwitz, it leaves an unresolved question. Arguably the only “memorial” that gives any sense of place is something that was there, and has not significantly altered. I mean not just a memorial pool but a warning site (as in Ypers), a think-place or a “denkmal” as it is called in Germany. Ruins like the surviving Hiroshima atomic dome, the remains of the Gedächtniskirche (the ruin of the memorial church in Berlin) or the ruined chapel attached to Coventry Cathedral remind us of the project of urbicide—the intent to murder in toto, the near-death of a city. These warning places of urban mass killing allow memory to become prophecy.

We must deal with the dialectic between grief and destruction; focusing only on one of these aspects perpetuates… the cycle of retribution.

Perhaps only the gaunt skeleton of one of the Towers itself could have truly achieved this for 9/11; those iconic twisted girders indeed stood for a while as a testament. In another world city, Berlin, the failure of the large Jewish memorial in the Potsdammer Platz is, I would argue, that it is purely artificial. It is not a “think place” or “warning place,” in the way that the Gestapo underground interrogation center (uncovered in post-1989 Berlin) is. These “Topography of Terror” sites on Prinz Albrecht strasse, (found on either side of the “disappeared” wall) are warning sites of memory similar to the remains of the crematoria at Birkenau; or the SS Guard Tower there. They serve the same end, and so much better to focus on these real local sites. For Berlin, the nearby sites of Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald or Plotzensee still serve as their warning places because it was there that atrocities actually happened, and they have not been sanitized by fake reconstructions or token monuments.

It is important that we consider how we choose to remember. It is much easier to make contact with the past through authentic sites, however grassed over, rusty or decrepit, or kept in a semblance of past times than through tokens. Of course no one wanted the poisonous debris of the WTC retained in situ—even if it could have been made safe. But gruesome as it may sound, that was the real “warning” site; and its very absence is arguably the worst thing about the place now. As one who works in the field of memory, I was reminded of modern Hiroshima, where there is one mound where ashes and human remains were placed. Even that seems contrived, cosmetic and manipulated to me. But nearby is the famous Atomic Dome; in summer it is sometimes floodlit for tourists, as it watches over the neon snarl of downtown Hiroshima traffic which still clouds the modern city and which hides the sad epicenter, once lit by a “thousand suns.”

Like those who died in London or Rotterdam or the World Trade Center, at least the Japanese were allowed to be “victims” (after the 1950s). But as W.G. Sebald has observed in On the Natural History of Destruction (2003), Germany had to wait another thirty years before grieving their destroyed cities. For very different reasons, Americans were robbed of this status and converted into (how should we say this?) perpetrators. Grief was perverted into vengeance.

As Marguerite Duras’s scripted dialog of the two lovers in Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais’s film of sites and memory) tells us: “you were never there.” The Japanese survivor tells us about second-hand remembrance: he tells the French visiting actress “survivor” how she could never re-experience such events from museums or artifacts, but, only remember her own memories of humiliation and loss in France. As for 9/11: no one but the victims, the witnesses and survivors can ever know what it was like; but we cannot only remember through the stories of individuals or such anniversaries can be as convenient a mode of forgetting, of covering up, or of denial, as of remembrance. We must deal with the dialectic between grief and destruction; focusing only on one of these aspects perpetuates (this is the prophecy mentioned above) the cycle of retribution.

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Nigel Young is Editor-in-Chief of the The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace.

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