Finding meaning at Ground Zero for future generations: some reflections a decade after 9/11.

Author:Miller, Eric D.


This paper offers a critical analysis of how we should attempt to understand the meaning of Ground Zero a decade after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans may be reacting to this site, much like what often occurs following a major personal loss, by trying to downplay the sheer trauma of the event. While it is virtually inevitable that individuals will likely make sense of Ground Zero through their own personal biases, it is essential that future generations have a clear, full, and accurate representation of the devastation that occurred there.

At the time of this writing, nearly a decade has passed since the horrors of9/11. Some uncertainty remains over how the area that once housed the World Trade Center complex, which included New York City's Twin Towers--commonly known as Ground Zero--will ultimately commemorate the carnage and heroism of that day. The late clinical psychologist, Thomas Conran, argued that it is difficult to experience Ground Zero as a space without actually visiting it. Such a visit, he believed, represents a personal pilgrimage that intersects personal and public tragedy. (1) Setha M. Low, an environmental psychologist and anthropologist at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, asserts that Ground Zero provides all of us, particularly scholars, with the opportunity to examine what is--or should be--the relationship between public space and culture. (2) These observations underscore the point that in order to appreciate the true meaning of culturally or historically important sites, it is critical to have experiential observations of them.

Ground Zero truly is a unique place of death in many respects. One could argue that 9/11, with the destruction of the Twin Towers as the pivotal event associated with that terrorist attack, may have opened a new page in world history. That reason alone makes this event fairly unique. Moreover, no other tragedy (with the possible exception of Jack Ruby's shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald) has been broadcast live on television as it happened. Some scholars have provided evidence suggesting a link between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression experienced by New Yorkers who viewed the graphic images on television. (3) The vivid, horrific images from 9/11 provide another reason why Ground Zero (and the surrounding area) is an extremely unique place: It captures an indelible image of time and place of tragedy. Ultimately though, it will always be remembered as a place where over 2,700 innocent individuals were murdered under some of the most horrific circumstances imaginable. (4)

Understanding the Significance of Places of Death

All cultures feature "death systems" where there is "a sociophysical network whose functions include predictions and warnings, attempts to prevent or inflict death, orientations toward the dying person, body disposal, social reconstruction after death, and efforts to explain or rationalize our mortality." (5) Robert J. Kastenbaum, professor emeritus of gerontology and communication at Arizona State University, adds that a sense of time and place are important to cultural death systems in order to give individuals and society appropriate opportunities to grieve. (6) Indeed, places of death carry with them a special sense of meaning that cannot nor should not be taken away no matter where they exist. (7) Ground Zero is such a place. John H. Harvey, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Iowa, argues that meaning is a process that is constantly being constructed and reconstructed in large part through stories that people tell in their lives and memorial markers. (8) As a New York-raised psychologist who studies loss and trauma, the tragic events of 9/11 had a personal resonance. In providing one perspective on how to make sense of and finding meaning in the horror of 9/11, I offer one such story.

Throughout New York City's history, countless murders have occurred in lower Manhattan--and yet there are no shrines to each of these individuals. Even certain disasters that have some sort of marker often remain unnoticed, such as the plaque remembering the 1966 fire in New York's Flatiron District that killed twelve firefighters, the most in a single day prior to 9/11. (9) In countries throughout the world, including the United States, acts of war and genocide have been committed without any marker or recognition of such atrocities. And what about the prospect of another al-Qaeda inspired terrorist attack occurring in the United States? If a biochemical attack caused the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals, would 9/11 lose much of its significance? These are all troubling questions that raise the issue of why and how certain places associated with death are commemorated while others are ignored or overlooked.

The debate over the future of Ground Zero reveals how many individuals do not believe that places of death should necessarily be overt reminders of that fact. Logistically, the World Trade Center site is a tricky one to understand: Across the street from it is the World Financial Center and several blocks from there is Wall Street. Moreover, within a radius of two to three blocks there are apartment buildings, schools, and stores. Unlike American Civil War battlefields or Nazi concentration camps, Ground Zero is not located in an idyllic country setting. If those sites were situated in bustling urban centers, would it have been argued that commercial development would have to give way to memorials of mass death and genocide? The Oklahoma City Memorial is located in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City at the site of the former Murrah Building. If that structure had been located in downtown New York City, would its' solemn and moving memorial to the 168 individuals murdered there not have been created?

While it may be a somewhat unsettling fact to accept, it is logistically impossible to commemorate (in a tangible sense) every single person who has been killed or murdered, although with the ever-growing popularity of Internet-based shrines this is a murky point. Heritage or memorial commissions can only include a fixed number of individuals. However, memorials possess the potential to represent the grief and suffering of any person. For instance, the American Holocaust Museum not only commemorates those who perished at the hands of the Nazis, but also acknowledges the suffering of anyone who has been victimized through

prejudice or genocide. (10)

The question of what is it that calls forth monuments for some events (or places associated with death) and not for others is a difficult one to answer. One can argue that certain places, events, or experiences are largely perceived by a sizeable number of interested others to be worthy of a monument because the loss associated with that particular event or place was so profound. (11) Nevertheless, it is important to realize that any site has the potential to be personally or mentally constructed as a place where loss has been experienced. And certainly no plaque is necessary for this to occur.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we witnessed many poignant posters featuring the names and faces of what would eventually reach more than 2,700 individuals murdered in the destruction of New York City's Twin Towers. These images gave way to the even more profound vistas of grief and loss that followed in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001. Ground Zero was a site that I knew "had" to be visited--albeit somewhat reluctantly.

March 2002 Visit

At some level, I had no idea what to expect during my first visit to Ground Zero in late March 2002. While crossing the Verrazano Bridge, I had already experienced the jaw-dropping sensation of not seeing the Twin Towers perched near the Statue of Liberty, as I had seen countless times before. At that point, the realization that l had not witnessed a macabre television movie on 9/11 truly crystallized within me.

As I approached Ground Zero, the first image I saw was an overflow of individuals crowding near St. Paul's Chapel. Located less than two blocks from the World Trade Center, this historic church miraculously suffered little damage. Throngs of onlookers observed the many shrines and well wishes placed in front of the church.

After leaving the area surrounding the chapel, the overwhelming destruction of Ground Zero became palpable: The site was even more devastating than what was depicted on television, or in newspapers or books. This massive pit that once housed the two tallest buildings in the world was just that--a massive pit. One of the arguably life-affirming images that I viewed was the cross unearthed by Ground Zero recovery workers.

As I stood directly across the street from Ground Zero on this cold, dreary day, that sense of pure awe at what I was witnessing gave way to an even crueler realization. I began wondering to myself: Am I standing on ground where a human body or parts of a human body were found? The very troubling answer would have to be that it was quite likely.

As I continued walking around the general perimeter of Ground Zero (including Wall Street) and noticed that many buildings several blocks from the World Trade Center site were greatly damaged, I found my way back to St. Paul's Chapel. This time I wanted a closer look at some of the loving tributes placed in front of the church. One particularly compelling remembrance read:

To our loving, kindhearted, and fun dad, Michael Timley.... We love you so very much and miss you more and more each day! Love, Lisa, Jenna, Steve, & Chad. At that point, I began to realize that this site clearly represented more than fallen buildings. it even signified more than the potential start of a new chapter in world history and war, or larger theoretical or behavioral truisms about altruism, evil or aggression. It was a place of death where more than 2,700 individuals were killed under particularly...

To continue reading