The Architecture Of Dread

Copyright © by Len Holman, 8/4/10


  We, as a nation, are now the pitiable Giant, caught in our own fears, blustering but cowardly, a shell of our previous fearsome selves, once casting a huge shadow now being shrunk by the small lights of small groups with large ambitions.  We are losing the war in Afghanistan, getting out of politically-frozen Iraq, while Baghdad is only getting 5 hours of electricity a day—when it isn’t being stolen, overwhelmed by Somali pirates and the hotbed of unrest in the UAE and West Africa, and now the latest example rears it very ugly, sweaty head:  the proposed building of a mosque just a few blocks from the site of the Twin Tower crashes—called Ground Zero.

  It is embarrassing to see all this for someone who remembers history, the history of a courageous nation, flawed, but persevering people with self-righteous nobility predominating, which pulled Europe out of the rubble of WWII with our money and expertise and passion, who always—for good or ill—swaggered and, mostly, made good on its promises.  We fire-bombed Dresden and atom-bombed two Japanese cities and STILL acted as if we had inherited the mantle of ethical purity and thus, the leadership of the world.  Not-so-slowly, over not too many years, we have become afraid of the dark.  And the darkness is in our souls.

  Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have weighed in, as expected, with condemnations of the proposed building, along with the Anti-Defamation League.   The main contention seems to be—aside from the political hay which no doubt begs to be made—the tension between building in a space and leaving that space memorialized by its emptiness.  The emptiness of a space, such as Gettysburg, seems to be a matter of historical inertia—plus, no one wants to build commercial offices there.  The plan for Ground Zero is one in which there will be a memorial, but also commercial real estate—after all, this is some of the choicest property in the nation.

  The emptiness of, say, the site of the Murrah Office Building in Oklahoma City—with its “survivor tree” and empty chairs and partial foundation--reminds one of the emptiness of purpose and directionless wandering the United States currently wallows in, which breeds the McVeighs of this country.  We do not build on memorial sites because they remind us of our limited, waning influence, our crumbling mythological prowess, and our inability to focus on what is important to our country and its citizens.  Unless money is involved.  A mosque two blocks away from the site of the towers is shameless and provocative, but putting commercial office buildings up in the same spot is just good business.  There were Muslims killed on 9/11, but they don’t figure into our Mythology.  We fear them with a dread so profound as to make us irrational, as we were when we put Japanese-Americans in horse stalls and isolated desert camps.  That dread is so strong that we cannot memorialize those who died AND build, trying to revitalize our civic and private lives, but instead, insist on leaving a blank space, a mirror-wound—not to nurse and let heal, but to pick at and keep raw and running.

  We have ghost towns out west.  Tourists visit them and take pictures and drink sarsaparilla, but these are not memorials—though people died in these towns.  They are monuments to our virility and we invite visitors to share in this Roman virtu, the swagger, the raw aggression of taming a wild land.  Recall Maya Lin’s conception of the Vietnam War Memorial.  Recall the outcry, with words used like a “hole in the ground” and a “gaping wound.”  Now the Wall is considered by most to be fitting, but there was nothing there to begin with and the resistance to it was at least partly based on losing a war to a seemingly inferior people.  Not Tall, broad-shouldered Americans, but small, brown people with no swagger.

  In Classical Antiquity, public building was tied to the genius of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans.  It wasn’t just stone and marble being erected, but the very essence of the people, their mythology, their history and their leadership.  Here, we have a “Ground Zero,” reminiscent of our last, massive hammer-blow, and we keep the name to remind ourselves that we used to be some other people, some other nation, that our collective self-image—real or imagined—propelled us and made us sure of ourselves.

  The city of New York has approved the plans, and the various city fathers have given their blessing.  The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, asked, “…if we are so afraid of something like this, what does it say about us?  Democracy is stronger than this.”

  Maybe not anymore.


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