I am an eyewitness to the death of World Trade Tower One. From my home in Soho, I saw in an instant the whole top of the tower begin to collapse in upon itself. As if in slow motion, it pancaked downward, the solid shape vanishing in a rising plume of black and yellow dust.
That image has returned to me again and again, both when I'm awake and when asleep. In fact, there have been an overwhelming number of images crowding in my psyche.
|Ruins of the World Trade Center|
One, in particular, remains with me: the ruins of the towers reaching to the sky like charred skeletal fingers. While horrific, it has a kind of terrible beauty. It contains the essence of the towers' design--those distinctive ribs that defined the upward thrusting energy of the buildings as they rose to such seemingly impossible heights. It also contains the signature of their destruction--those ribs now charred and twisted set against the emptiness of the sky.
There has been talk of rebuilding, of cleaning up and clearing away the
rubble and removing what is now known as "the pile"--the frightening,
chaotic, almost incomprehensible mountain of tangled building materials. But this is not just the massive wreckage of fallen buildings, it is also a burial ground. So many people died here that didn't know they were on a battlefield. So while it is important to clear the twisted steel and remove the toxic remains of pcps, dioxins, asbestos, and plastic and get down and finally put out the fires that still burn and send choking smoke into our eyes and noses, it is also crucial to pay honor to the memory of those who died and to create a vital memorial for those who need to come and bear witness at this tragic place.
As I have thought about this and have been visited by the images of the ruined towers I found myself remembering the image of another bombed-out building.
|Kaiser Wilhelm Gedechtniss Kirche|
In 1961 while in Berlin, I saw the shell of a great church, bombed during World War II and left as a memorial while all of Berlin was rebuilt around it. It was the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedechtniss Kirche
("Memorial Church") and the stark fragmented structure had the same kind of terrible beauty that the charred ribs of the trade towers possess.
In 1961 as a young American with no experience of the war that had destroyed the church almost 20 years before, I was deeply affected by that ruin in a way that nothing else could. I had been raised to be a spiritual person with values of compassion and love of humanity, but these values were somewhat abstract to me up to the moment of seeing that church.
Not so afterwards. The ruin gave me a physical sense of the meaning of death, destruction, hatred, and warfare. I had passed by many war monuments and many graveyards during my young life but nothing stopped me in my tracks like this astonishing shell of a building once dedicated to daily living worship, but now a stark and powerful memorial.
We humans have a reverence for ruins. They speak of the lives that inhabited the once living structures. They speak of ritual and timelessness while also having great specificity and uniqueness. The skeletal remains of the towers have already evoked cathedral windows to some and Stonehenge-like monoliths to others. Everyday while they existed the towers teemed with life. Then one day they were suddenly destroyed. Who would have thought that something that took so long to plan and build could be shattered and fall in minutes? What was left behind speaks more authentically of the tragedy than anything man could build to try to memorialize it.
Nietzsche said, "One must descend into chaos to attain the shooting star." We have had a megadose of chaos from the moment the first plane struck Tower One. I believe that we must preserve a part of this new ruin that has come upon us. Some profound learning doesn't come through the mind or the intellect, but viscerally and intuitively. That's what happened to me in that moment of first seeing the church in Berlin. I got more from the impact of that image than I had gotten from any number of books, lectures, or discussions about the horrors of war and terror. That is why I believe the presence of part of the actual remains of the World Trade Towers should remain among us.
We are too close to the chaos right now to know what shooting star will
emerge from our suffering and vulnerability. But anyone walking close to Ground Zero is instantly gripped with a terrible awe that simply cannot be conveyed through the tiny television screen that has been the only access for many of us to this experience.
Anyone seeing the remains of the towers cannot help themselves; they are transported by the raw beauty of these remains--even feeling a little guilty as they register how beautiful they are. Our synapses are instantly rearranged as we behold the power and magnitude of the destruction. But this is not a negative experience. We are
stimulated to new depths of expression and awareness as we come away from being near this newly sacred ground.
The memorial cannot be a small symbolic shard of the towers; it needs to be sizeable enough to cause a visitor to look up and keep looking up in order to feel the magnitude of this act of destruction. It must stop thought and pierce the souls of those who come to stand at "Ground Zero."
My hope is that something will organically emerge from the disturbing pile of rubble and become a symbol that says that we have experienced the forces of chaos and destruction--and have survived. We have not only survived but have also chosen to honor the creative force and power of the human spirit by transforming "Ground Zero" from a meaningless tangle of chaotic rubble into a thing of beauty that helps us remember that we too can transform our own chaos into beauty and our destructive impulses into compassion and hope.