Memorials and monuments
: I took some time away yesterday and finally went to the Holocaust Museum and to the Vietnam Memorial and then wandered the streets of the Capital. And I came away with thoughts about memorials and monuments and the future of the World Trade Center.
The Holocaust Museum is phenomenal: beautifully expressed, eloquently informative, devastatingly human. I have read about the museum from its opening and have seen pictures of the exhibits. But there is nothing like the experience of walking through and coming to the room that extends up and down beyond focus with pictures of the people of the shtetl Eishishok: It makes every life real, it makes every loss painful. And when I came to the room with shoes, nothing but empty shoes, I broke down.
It wasn’t the facts and videos and words and knowledge that made this so immediate and heartfelt. It was the artifacts of lives.
And I went to the Vietnam Memorial: the wall. I no doubt see it through a different prism today than I would have a few years ago. I protested against the Vietnam War and would again today. I fear those lives were lost without need or meaning. I fear one of those lives could have been mine. But today I’m also aware that some are saying the same thing about the deaths in Iraq. And so I better understand the sacrifice then and now.
The differences between these two memorial are clear: One expresses its enormity by listing every life lost; the other expresses enormity with details of the lives of a few. One is about victims; the other is about soldiers; and we’re free to call them heroes. It occurred to me that we often end up with a choice when facing an evil or an enemy: Do we lose the lives of the innocents or of the soldiers?
I don’t mean to put either tragedy, the Holocaust or Vietnam, on the same scale as the other or as September 11th; I refuse to play the which-is-bigger, which-is-worse game. But I do see the parallels in both: September 11th was about innocents lost to the evil of our generation’s fanatical evil; September 11th was about the sacrifice of soldiers — including the fire fighters and ambulance angels — who tried to save lives.
And then I wandered around the White House and the Capital and at first grimaced at the scale, the fauxness of everything in Washington: Every building tries to be a massive imitation of something old and revered but also cold and inhuman. The night before, I had wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to be like England or France or Germany (again) and have our capital in a city with life instead of government, where you can look at people going to work without thinking of the tax dollars that pay them all. But this night, after seeing those memorials, after watching tourists in their American-flag T-shirts oggling the sight for its own sake, I decided I was wrong. We were smart to build Washington as a monument to democracy and freedom.
And so I thought about the World Trade Center through this lense. (And to those who are new here, I have a special interest in that, having both been there that day and having submitted my own memorial proposal not to see it built but to see my wounds heal). I wished that what appears at the World Trade Center — the memorial and the museum and the buildings that grow — have elements of all these three things: I want the enormity expressed in the names as the solemn though sterile memorial will. I want the enormity expressed in the lives, as I hope the museum will. And I want the hope and determination expressed in the buildings, which should rise as monuments and tributes to choice and freedom and democracy and opportunity and America.