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Two large, sunken pools, fed by what the official literature describes as the largest man-made waterfall in North America, drain into central shafts meant, it seems, to conjure the infinite abyss of death and loss. They are rimmed with bronze panels into which are inscribed the names of those who died a decade ago. The rest of the grounds of the 9/11 Memorial are filled with trees and stone benches.

R.R. Reno The architects and designers have created something akin to the verdant lawns and quiet groves of suburban memorial parks, places we visit in our private journeys of loss, grief, and remembrance. It was this individual, private sense of memorial and remembrance that was emphasized by the official ceremony weekend before last.

Two presidents spoke briefly, but they walked into the memorial as individuals with their wives. Religious leaders were excluded. Police and firemen protested their own restricted roles. The focus was on family members and close friends of those who died.

News coverage showed them in the private recollections, some touching the names inscribed in bronze, others making rubbings. The names were read out. Husbands who had lost wives, wives who had lost husbands, children who had lost parents spoke of the loss, bringing tears to many eyes. Sixty bagpipers played, and a solemn ringing of a bell marked the exact moments when the planes struck the towers and when they fell. Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence,” and James Taylor “You Can Close Your Eyes.” A secular memorial service. Moving, yes, but largely lacking in public, civic meaning.

Never forget, we’ve heard, over and over and over. The memorial and ceremony reflected the universal, private meaning of this urgent imperative, its determined effort to overcome death by a supreme personal act of perpetual memory. I’ve said it myself, or at least something very like it, at gravesides as I’ve watched caskets descend into holes as seemingly bottomless as the central shafts into which the water descends in the reflecting pools at Ground Zero.

But very few Americans have a particular friend or loved one to grieve over at the 9/11 memorial. And even for those of us who do (three of my college classmates died that day, Tom Glasser, Doug Gardner, and Calvin Gooding), to go there and remember will involve complex patriotic emotions. As a college classmate who blogged a few days ago put it, they died in a “national tragedy.”

She’s right, which is why the 9/11 memorial will be for most an occasion to re-experience the anguish we felt over the attack on our country that day in 2001, as well as our national solidarity. Although intensely and subjectively felt, these emotions are public in character, not private. Unfortunately, our civic culture, at least as reflected in the design of the memorial and ceremony, seems unable to give firm civic meaning these inevitably public emotions.

I’ll wager that the ceremony put an accent on private loss because the public dimension augurs controversy , which came to the fore soon after the Bush administration set upon a course of vigorous military response.

So we have, as Wilfred McClay perceptively argued in a fine analysis of the ceremony, a divided public culture. One side wants to affirm the national significance of 9/11; the other thinks we’ve been exploited and led astray by a false patriotism. Thus the default to a memorial park atmosphere and the realm of private memory. As McClay puts it, “Given the lack of any generally agreed-upon public meaning of September 11, we have naturally found it hard to arrive at a means of commemorating the date properly. The least controversial way to do it is to individualize the commemoration.”

But this approach is an evasion, one that does a disservice to our country. The neglect of public memory can undermine our civic unity. It’s foolish to take patriotism for granted. We need occasions to see and feel ourselves as one nation.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to experience our solidarity under the disciplining influence of a humane symbolism, one that gives effective, just, and lasting shape to our civic instincts and emotions. After all, we’re social animals, and if we neglect public memory it won’t go away. Instead it will find covert expression and tempt us to toward ersatz and perhaps dangerous forms of solidarity. Brown shirts, blue shirts, black shirts: they were the unfortunate rainbow coalition of societies whose civic cultures were in crisis during the dark middle decades of the twentieth century. Our civic memorials should seek to purify public memory, not repress or ignore it, because our social instincts need to be engaged by a rich public culture, one with the confidence to put American flags where they belong. We need to celebrate heroic sacrifices for the common good, sacrifices that so many firemen made on September 11.

If we fail to do so, something else will fill the void. For example, in “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which was released soon after 9/11, country music bad boy Toby Keith offered an indelicate description of where the American boot would be placed in the anatomy of the terrorists. It’s just this sort of excess the makes liberals anxious, and not without reason. Hitler’s Germany was forged on slogans about remembering that were linked to visceral calls for revenge. Never forget the stab in the back, and so forth.

Presidents Bush and Obama recognized the need to fill the void. Both men spoke not as private persons but instead quoted from our deepest public memories, which are eloquent in the face of death when we, as solitary individuals encased in our personal experiences of loss, so often are wordless with grief.

Bush quoted from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to the mother of five slain soldiers. President Obama went one better, violating the religion-neutral atmosphere, which as we know always ends up as an officially non-religious and secular atmosphere. He recited Psalm 46.

Therein lies the purification of memory. Never forget your beloved sons, Lincoln’s letter urges, but also remember the Republic they died to save. As a nation, Lincoln implicitly promised, we will do our best to redeem your private loss, not by restoring your sons to life but in and through our commitment to justice and freedom.

Like so much of the Bible, Psalm 46 provides a deeper purification of memory. “Be still,” the Psalm urges those of us who shake with a private grief, those of us who quiver with fierce patriotic and public emotions, “and know that I am God.” It is a Psalm that urges us “Never forget!” Never forget that in private moments of profound loss, in public moments of national tragedy, the God of Jacob is our refuge.

We’re no Germany in 1932. Far from it. On the eve of 9/11 this year I was walking through Times Square. A gaggle of tourists where chanting “USA, USA” with an undisciplined enthusiasm that suggested no menace. It was just raw patriotism, something naturally evoked by the upcoming anniversary of the attack.

But that’s precisely the problem with the 9/11 memorial. It looks to be a civic failure that evades rather than addresses our civic emotions, leaving us vulnerable to something like Toby Keith’s simple-minded, kick ‘em in the you-know-where mentality.

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .


Wilfred McClay, Memorializing September 11th

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