Misuse of Memorials

by Blair Sullivan | 11/14/06 6:00am

The state of Arizona recently unveiled its memorial commemorating the attacks of Sept. 11. Unfortunately, when the veil came off, it became clear that the memorial had been influenced by commission members wishing to make political statements. Disagreement and controversy over Iraq and the War on Terror are seeping into things as fundamental as our memorials to our dead.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks in 2001, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano created the Sept. 11 Memorial Commission. In her own words, "The purpose of the Commission is to build a lasting memorial on the Arizona State Capitol Mall to the victims ... The family, friends and fellow citizens we lost on Sept. 11 should never be forgotten, and this memorial will help ensure that, generations from now, Arizonians will continue to honor their memory."

The final product of the Memorial Commission does not reflect the Governor's words. The memorial itself is a giant angled ring on which a timeline and record of key events and quotes are etched. But rather than words of homage, several phrases are blatant attacks on the Bush administration and its handling of the war: "You Don't Win Battles of Terrorism With More Battles," and "Congress Questions Why CIA and FBI Didn't Prevent Attacks." One of the monument's creators even proposed that the design be modified to include and commemorate the names of the 19 terrorists who hijacked the planes and murdered 2,948 Americans.

It is a shame that some of the memorial's designers have used its construction as a means of expressing their political opinions. After the atrocities of Sept. 11, our country came together in a beautiful way. For a few months, partisanship was quelled as politicians and citizens from both ends of the political spectrum temporarily forgot their differences. We were all united in our grief and anger, and in the desire to protect our country. The phrases mentioned above reflect the exact opposite of this sentiment.

Fortunately, not all of the monument's phrases are political criticisms. The monument's inscriptions also include appropriate, moving phrases which fulfill the monument's original intent: "9:57 a.m. Flight 93 passengers fight hijackers"; "Dug 8 hours, only found one helmet strap"; "President asks nation to join in a moment of silence."

But these words, which truly honor the victims, are sadly overshadowed by those that are political.

Let me make it clear that this is not an issue of freedom of speech. People have every right to say whatever they want about the Bush administration, and about the war. People may say whatever they want about the terrorist attacks. They may claim that America provoked the attacks; they are free to claim that the terrorists themselves were victims. But there is a time and a place for these expressions and it is not in a memorial dedicated to remembering the victims of a terrorist attack. This is a simply a question of decorum. Given the context, some of the phrases etched on the memorial are downright insulting and completely undermine the memory of those who lost their lives.

The purpose of a memorial is to preserve the memory of a person or an event -- not to make a statement. A perfect example of this is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The conflict in Vietnam was extremely controversial, evoking strong sentiments and gradually tearing the country apart. Protests and demonstrations were rampant as people had no inhibitions in expressing their dissent. But the memorial did not express this political strife. The simple design of black granite etched with the names of those soldiers who lost their lives may be interpreted in any number of ways. War veterans and draft-dodgers alike can walk away from the memorial feeling satisfied. The war veteran may look at the memorial and reflect on his times in battle, the friends lost and the pride he feels in having served his country. At the same time, the memorial may reinforce the draft-dodger's belief that the war was an atrocity not nearly worth the cost in American lives. The important thing is that the memorial allows one to honor the soldiers and to attach his or her own meaning to the war.

A memorial should be a work of art -- one that is timeless, rather than political. A memorial commemorating the events of Sept. 11 should represent and pay homage to the sacrifices that the victims and heroes made for our country -- not someone's views about the current administration.