Awe, Sorrow, And Anger At National Monuments To Our Darkest Days

By

Leonard Zwelling

Where were you when…?

For the parents of the Baby Boomers, the Greatest Generation, it’s Pearl Harbor. For us Boomers, it is the Kennedy Assassination. For our kids and for us, too, it’s 9/11.

Each of these crucial upheavals in normal American life has a monument at the site of the event. I have now been to them all. They evoke very different emotions or at least they did in me.

Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii, is a place of solemn awe. The Battleship Arizona still leaks oil over 75 years after the Japanese sneak attack. Visitors take a brief launch trip to the hallowed memorial above the sunken ship. The names are there. The remains of the battle are there. The details are described, often by aging veterans who volunteer to serve at the memorial. There are fewer of them every year now. Few visitors were alive when the events commemorated at Pearl Harbor took place. It is like visiting Gettysburg or Ford’s Theater. It is visiting history. The bravery and the sacrifice elicit awe of long ago American events.

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas is quite different. It’s a short elevator ride up what used to be the Texas School Book Depository to pictures of the news of the day from November 22, 1963. Then each visitor arrives at the window next to the one from which the gun fire came. The actual corner window is boarded up. It is at that moment, looking out on the plaza from the adjacent window, that I realized the ease with which any assassin could have made two out of three shots at a slowly moving limousine that Friday afternoon. And Lee Harvey Oswald might well have committed the crime of that century by himself, just as Governor Connolly’s wife Nellie described to me many years ago when she said to my query of the obvious, “three shots from behind.”

As one strolls the grassy knoll and the two white x’s on the street where the shots found their mark a wave of both nausea and sorrow obtains. What might have been? What might not have been at the National Mall’s Vietnam Memorial? The Sixth Floor Museum makes you cry with pain. The loss is palpable.

On October 11, 2017, we finally got tickets to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum after having tried several times before. It is still quite crowded, but same day tickets are available now. They had not been on our previous visits to New York.

The exhibit is a bit of an enigma as the main displays are deep below street level among some remnants of steel and concrete of the awful day sixteen years ago. But once you are in, you are engulfed. The pictures, the film, the tape recordings from cockpit voice recorders and answering machines, the actual footage of people leaping to their deaths, and a full explanation of Al Qaeda and who our enemy was that day and remains today is all there. It is overwhelming in its thoroughness. Nothing is omitted. It is far too much to take in. After two hours one is exhausted and very, very angry.

After the tears of sorrow, come the tears of rage. How could the government been so lax at fulfilling its prime objective—keeping Americans safe in the homeland? What went wrong? Oh, that’s there, too. The entire documentation of the security apparatus’ failures down to a photo of Mohammed Atta with his flight school class. You are angry and you understand from whence the Trump Presidency arose. Democrats and Republicans could not keep us safe. Democrats and Republicans got us into unnecessary wars that we still haven’t won. There’s a direct line from the rage at our vulnerability after 9/11 to the rage that led to the Trump election and it is clear on the faces of every visitor I saw at the 9/11 Museum.

Outside again, where the two towers stood, are giant square waterfalled pools with a huge square in the middle of each whose bottom cannot be seen. It is the well of sorrow. Two of them. Around the walkway are the names of all the victims. It is reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial again. It says “never forget.” It says “never again.”

Three national memorials to three awful days in our history. But only the latter draws that straight line to the present. Why Trump? On that day, September 11, 2001, it seemed like what made us Americans had made us vulnerable. No nation can stand for that.

Americans won’t stand for that. Now they are basically saying that they won’t, or at least 40% are. With five parties: Republican, Tea, Trump, Democrats and liberals, 40% may be enough to carry the day—and the country.

Leonard Zwelling