ashes to ashes
This week, New York City residents will publicly debate and discuss the proposals for what will be built on the World Trade Center site.
I once felt passionate about what should or shouldn't go up on the site. Now, I don't think it really matters. Sure, I don't want the new designs to be garish or ugly or to look like abstract art instead of architecture. I think that no matter what they put there, no matter how large or small the memorial garden, no matter how they choose to retain the footprints of the building or build a memorial wall, that place in New York City will always be that place.
As I drive to work each day, I pass several places on the road where the trees that line the sidewalks are adorned with flowers and balloons. Someone died at that spot. Someone is missed. For the family members, the flowers are a small gesture of rememberance; but you can be sure that they do not need a placard or a marker to remind them of that intersection where their brother or sister or child died.
Memorials are other people. They are reminders to everyone passing that this is what happens when people drink and drive; this is what happens when you drive too fast; this is what happens when you don't stop for a school bus that has it's stop lights flashing: you kill my child.
For most of America, whatever they put at the site of the World Trade Center will be just that, a reminder. This is what hatred does; this is what blind allegiance does; this is what happens when people are intolerant of another. But it also serves as another useful reminder - that we will not forget. We will not let this happens again. That's what it would be for me, at least.
Which makes the fact that I came across this post on another weblog this morning all the more interesting. As often happens with the web, I had to weave my way through a couple of different blogs before I got to the heart of the matter. It goes back to December 30, when Elayne Riggs seemed a bit horrified that a piece of the metal from the WTC would be melted down and used in the building of a warship:
But I can pretty much surmise that few if any of these 3000 people would consent to having their ashes be used as part of an instrument of war. That's what I find, in August's words, utterly obscene.
Jean D'Arc also found that offensive:
"There is something fundamentally wrong about turning the ashes of murdered people into a warship. Making the building of that warship an $800 million dollar pork project for Trent Lott's home town just compounds the indecency."
Which all lead me to Avram, who defended the decision admirably:
Did the WTC dead consent to having their ashes dumped in Fresh Kills landfill to begin with? Or sold as scrap? Surely not. Why balk at a warship, then? And if we canít do anything with the steel that the dead didnít consent to, then what do we do with it? And why limit this attitude just to this steel, and not to everything else the ashes bonded to?
Look, I was there in Brooklyn on 9/11. I saw that plume of smoke arcing up over me, and eastward. I breathed that air, and smelled that smoke, as did millions of other people. Those ashes travelled far and wide. They got everywhere, and into everything. Theyíre part of me now, and part of lots of other people too. The WTC dead were part of every rape, every kiss, every fight, every sneeze, every lie, every truth, every fart, every laugh in the New York area in the past fifteen months, no matter what the dead would have wanted. (And what theyíd most want, Iím guessing, is not to be dead.) And every one of us has atoms in his or her body that spent some time as part of Genghis Kahn, or Charlemagne, or Aristotle, or Washington.
The other day Chris and I were talking about the current plans for rebuilding the WTC, all of which seem to involve leaving the actual footprints of the original buildings undeveloped, as if to build there would be disrespectful to the dead. Chris pointed out that there probably isnít so much as a single square foot of land on all of Manhattan Island that hasnít had somebody die on it at some point. And yet life goes on, and we keep on building.
Iím all for respecting the dead, but not to the point where the graveyard walls become a prison for the living.
I agree wholeheartedly with Avram.
As someone who personally knew a few of the victims of September 11, I can say without a single shred of doubt that they would be honored to know that the metal is being used in such a way. It's symbolic. It's powerful. It has nothing to do with war, per se. And it certainly has nothing to do with Trent Lott.
Like Avram, I inhaled some of that smoke and dust. I sneezed it out. It rattled around in my lungs. I watched the sky darken and realized with dawning horror that the smoke and dust rising into the sky was made partly of humans.
I watched from the relative safety of western Long Island. I did not have to walk through the ashes or run from them, but the fact remains that what I saw in the sky that day was the remains of people I knew, people I never heard of, people who would never see another moment of life.
My father owns a piece of that day. A piece of the steel, forged into a cross and each time I look at it, I see people. Each time I touch it, I feel a bit of sorrow, as well as a bit of anger. And what's the difference if those ashes are forever sealed in a cross or a warship or ground into the dirt of a playground of a nearby school because that is where the wind carried them?
Avram has it exactly right that what the victims would want most is to not be dead. And speaking just of those people I knew, I can say that it would not matter to them that they were being soldered into a warship, as much as it would not matter if their memory and remains were being soldered into a cross or a momument or a folding chair. It's the remembering them that would matter. It's the keeping fresh in our memories of what happened that day that would matter. It's the promise that we will never let this happen again that would matter.
As Gary Farber says:
I can't help also be struck by the seeming presumption that, somehow, military hardware is singularly, inherently, evil, rather than mere inanimate object, able like any other to be used for good or ill, for the saving of lives or the unnecessary wasting of lives, unable to decide on its own, or take on any moral value of its own, but only a tool to be used at the choice of humans whose future actions we cannot predict and know not of.
Whatever the developers decided in the end, whatever becomes of that spot, it will - like the flowers tacked to the telephone pole on Jerusalem Avenue that I see each morning - always give one pause as they pass it. A place where 3,000 people died, a place where one person died; they can have the same affect on you. We, and our relative peace and safety, are very fragile.