Oklahoma City , Okla . – This city has helped New York over and over in the last nine months. It sent counselors and victims’ family members to talk to New York survivors. It sent boxes filled with teddy bears, the Oklahoma talisman of healing.
Now, as New York considers what sort of memorial to Sept. 11 to erect downtown, it should take an important lesson from the wrongheaded memorial here: Do not wallow in grief.
The national memorial to the April 19, 1995, bombing that took 168 lives is certainly stunning. It takes up more than 3.3 acres of downtown Oklahoma City real estate. Where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood, there’s a field filled with metal and glass chairs, one for each victim. What was once a busy thoroughfare, Fifth Street, is now a vast pool of moving water blocked off by two massive bronze gates. There’s a chain-link fence on which visitors have for years left mementos. An adjoining office building houses an institute for the prevention of terrorism and a museum and store, which sells Oklahoma City bombing T-shirts, wind chimes and water bottles.
Oh, and I almost forgot the Rescuers’ Orchard, which “rushes in,” a plaque says, from east and west, on grassy terraces toward the Survivor Tree, an elm that survived the blast.
There are so many symbols here as to obliterate the poetry of any one of them. There are so many faces on televisions inside the museum describing their pain to you that you feel wrung out like a rag. Worst of all, the memorial has nothing to say about the important historical issues that triggered Timothy McVeigh’s madness.
The problem is obvious. “The wishes of the Families/Survivors Liaison Subcommittee are to be given the greatest weight in the Memorial planning and development process,” said the memorial’s mission statement. This was a mistake. The victims’-rights movement has been an important one that has reformed the justice system. But here it has gone too far, and turned a memorial that should address issues of national disunity into a site for the bereaved. When Mayor Bloomberg said recently that he does not want a “cemetery” downtown, he may well have had in mind the field of 168 chairs, which resembles a graveyard and is inaccessible to the general public, roped off on the day that I and hundreds of others showed up by the busload. In 100 years, those chairs will seem meaningless.
Meantime, the memorial declines to show the curious where McVeigh parked his Ryder truck packed with fertilizer. And the National Park Service Rangers who work the site sound like funeral-home workers.
“The gates provide the identity of the moment,” a young ranger said, introducing the site to 30 of us, standing under the Survivor Tree. “The gate on your left says ’9:01′ because it is the last moment of innocence. The gate on the right [9:03] symbolizes the first moment of healing in the aftermath. The gates are a way for us to transition from our moment of time …. In the pool, you will see the reflection of someone who’s been forever changed-you.”
Survivors need to hold on to their loved ones, and dwell in that moment of 9:02. But do the rest of us? The most ghoulish of the museum chambers is a room that simulates a meeting of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which was recorded on tape. You hear the tedious opening of the meeting on a P.A., waiting for the horrifying explosion, the screams and the flickering of lights.
It has been seven years since the blast, but the survivors’ feelings are still so raw that is verboten to say anything straightforward about the case. This is understandable-but an argument for not building a memorial till time has blunted the edge of sorrow. The greatest memorials in Washington, to Vietnam and Lincoln, both took a long time to build, and are the more powerful for that.
These memorials serve a larger public, and are paid for by the larger public. They should be sites of strength and understanding as well as offering pictures (as the Oklahoma City museum store does) of grown men holding teddy bears and trying to knock back their tears.
I remember the moment when survivors became overempowered: the Ramada Plaza Hotel at Kennedy Airport six years ago, following the crash of Flight 800. T.W.A. had initially treated the families shabbily, and when the families lashed back, the public was with them all the way. The families holed up in the Ramada became a force unto themselves. President Clinton, our pastor in chief, showed up. The head of the F.B.I. investigation into the crash said that the immediate priority was getting all the bodies from the Atlantic floor rather than searching for evidence of foul play.
A confusion in public values had begun. A process that had traditionally been religious or spiritual had entered public life. When President Clinton opened the memorial here two years ago, he addressed the survivors principally and not the general public. “I hope you can find the strength to live a full and loving life, free of hatred …. “
Now the psychological errand of offering survivors closure has become a weighty public responsibility. But providing closure seems to mean never getting closure. Everyone is stuck in 9:02.
Psychology and history may be incompatible means of understanding, and the memorial has therefore erased history. It was too painful to have to say Timothy McVeigh’s name, so the tiny exhibit focusing on the investigation is screened from the rest of the show.
This exhibit says of the fiery destruction of the Waco compound in 1992 that “many people died inside the complex.” This language is shamefully vague. More than 80 people died, and many of them were children. Waco and the earlier destruction of Randy Weaver’s family in Idaho were signal events in the anti-government movement to which McVeigh was so sympathetic. These tensions arose again in the famous red and blue map of counties that went for Al Gore and George W. Bush in the last general election. McVeigh was a monster, but he came out of an important national division, between educated, urban winners and rural losers.
Sept. 11 was bigger than Oklahoma City. It is said to have brought the country back into history. The post–Cold War feeling that we had overcome global adversity and war was an illusion; the world is still divided, and history is bloody and rough, as it has always been. The Europeans justly mock us for our imperial tenderness, for holding ourselves apart from the world, for believing that the recovery movement was the path to world peace.
Now we are engaged again, and learning that being in history means being at risk, and making sacrifices. If in this process grown men need to hold teddy bears, maybe they should hold them in private. Let our public memorials have some dignity and stoicism. There is already a tendency in New York to go on about post-traumatic stress. Don’t let those feelings suffuse a memorial.
The lessons of the Oklahoma memorial to New York are: Preserve the footprints of the two towers from development, but limit the memorial to those spaces. Honor the dead by remembering that they were working in commerce, that this was and is a place of commerce. Wait a few years before making a final design choice. For the time being, let the scars of the buildings’ bases and people’s leavings be the memorial.
And yes, follow Oklahoma City’s example in giving an important place to victims’ and survivors’ stories.
On the fence, I found poems left by the relatives of Julie Welch. A native Oklahoman, Julie was in her junior high cafeteria when she heard kids shouting epithets at a Hispanic student and resolved to do something about it. She learned Spanish and then four other languages. She worked with the poor overseas and in an inner-city parish. She had just gotten a job as a translator for the Social Security Administration when she was killed by a man who hated the government. She was 23. “Wake up, Sacred Ground, tell the stories you hold. Share the presence of souls,” writes her aunt Gerarda. Her parents, Bud and Lena, say they have trouble living without her.
Follow Philip Weiss via RSS.