By: Ben Atwood  | 

Out of the Depths: a Visit to the 9/11 Memorial, Sixteen Years Later

A buzz overtakes my eardrums: not the hurried drone of an uncomfortably close hornet’s nest but the soothing hum of a nearby waterfall. The sound of rushing water and the slimy humidity glued to my skin for a moment deludes me into thinking I sit in the midst of an exotic rainforest. But I quickly end my daydream and find myself in the vastly dissimilar financial center of New York City. I lift my eyes upward and shift my pupils left, and then right, surveying the towering banks and office buildings lined up as dominoes around the perimeter of where I sit typing at my silver Dell laptop. The noon sun hangs directly over my head; the lack of shade producing a couple droplets of sweat that fall from my forehead to be caught in the thicket of my eyebrows. My eyes squint as I peer down towards the source of the only noise I can hear, the waterfall that fills the site of what seventeen years ago housed the South Tower of the centerpiece of Manhattan, the grand prix of financial hubs: the World Trade Center.

The brutal terror attacks of September 11, 2001 that reduced the two largest towers of the World Trade Center to mere piles of ash and rubble strove to damage the Western world’s confidence in their value of liberty by assaulting a symbol of their free markets. As a result, the 9/11 Memorial was constructed not only as a tribute to the lives lost but a reminder of the Western appreciation for life and freedom (Based on the 9/11 Memorial Mission Statements). The plaza grounds consist mostly of white and black concrete with scattered concrete blocks for sitting, used when visitors need to rest their legs or simply dwell in contemplation over the tragic events of that fateful September morning. While the park serves as a serene respite among some of the tallest structures in the city, the area’s own highest points, save for the Memorial Museum, are youthful swamp white oak trees that lie scattered on unevenly distributed rectangles of grass and soil. The glistening, tough concrete reminds the visitor of the West’s industrial prowess, while the plush greens and sprouting oaks reflect the flourishing, peaceful pleasure of freedom, the targets of 9/11.

Within the grounds of the memorial are two large pools that represent the two main towers obliterated sixteen years ago. Gallons of water flow down the inner walls of each square, landing in another pool that itself leads to a black square-shaped void in the structure’s center, providing the illusion that the water falls forever into nothingness. The pools and the plaza please the aesthete’s eye, yet appear as mere scabs over the wounds that remain fresh to many who remember 9/11.

The Manhattan financial center houses a bustling world of capitalism, where employees and CEO’s work incessantly for profit. In such an atmosphere, little time exists to ruminate over larger aspects of life and existence. Thus, the serenity of the 9/11 memorial acts as a spiritual foil to and perhaps remedy for one of the centers of utilitarian capitalist America. Sitting on one of the concrete blocks in the memorial’s plaza, I spend much time watching the various visitors use the memorial as an area in which to express their freedom in diverse ways.

I see an American couple probably in their seventies or eighties, the man plump with a bald head and graying beard alongside his skinny wife with frizzy, long gray hair, staring silently into the openness of the South Tower pool. Neither speaks. The man’s liver-spotted hand, shaking, rises slowly from his side to his partner’s opposite shoulder. Around the corner of the same pool, two Asian girls with long, straight black hair smile as one of them raises her selfie-stick in front of them to snap a picture. Nearby, a French mother profusely apologizes in thick accent-tainted English to a patrolling security guard after he reprimands her teenage son for lying down on one of the sitting blocks. All of these visitors come to commemorate the same event. Irrespective of race or nationality, they wave their hands, mimicking a plane to explain to their children what happened on 9/11.

Along the outer edge of the pools are plaques with the names of the almost three-thousand victims of 2001 and the six of a first attack in 1993, hollowed out in bronze. Relatives, friends, those with zero connection to anyone murdered during those events place their fingers on the names, feeling the emptiness within each letter. Each carving represents a life, a legacy, and an unfulfilled destiny. Humans may differ in terms of background, profession, and future, but all who value liberty and free life come to the memorial to remember in unison. The different cohorts of visitors rarely speak to each other or recognize each other’s presence yet are unafraid to pipe in softly to correct a father to their left explaining to his adolescent twin sons what he remembers of the details of 9/11 morning. A mere hour later, visitors express empathetic looks towards a young widow who breaks down in tears upon seeing her husband’s name on the plates for the first time. The interactions I witness from my seat stem from a shared appreciation of what the World Trade Center symbolizes and prove that the September 11 terrorists not only failed to quash Western spirits but indirectly created a space that fosters our unity.

As noon begins to pass, I steal a final panorama of my surroundings. In his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost describes a short visit to a snowy forest on his trek back from a long day of doing business. He absorbs and meditates over the nature around him, but soon declares “the woods are lovely dark and deep, / but I have promises to keep, / and miles to go before I sleep, / and miles to go before I sleep” (Frost). Frost’s minute of asylum in the woods does not hijack his entire evening nor is it dismantled by business he must soon rush take care of, but rather complements his hectic day and aids in moving him forward. The 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan acts similarly for the frenzied culture of not only New York’s financial center but the Western world at large by providing refuge for those who need a moment to meditate over larger values in life and inspiration for persevering further.

As my eyes reach directly in front of me, I cannot help but smile. From where I am sitting, the One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, constructed next to the memorial site as the new tallest building in New York, appears behind the North Tower pool as if rising from the pool’s opening. From the empty depths of the pool ascends a new life more vibrant than ever. The 9/11 Memorial as a tribute to Western freedom cultivates unity among all peoples by granting sanctuary to the otherwise chaotic routine of daily life and, as a result, could no better display what it means to rise from the ruins of catastrophe and march onwards.