Pondering The Face Of Ground Zero

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University

 It seemed important to go there Monday, to see it, and to pay my respects.  And I was curious, of course, curious to see what my fellow citizens (and many others) would make of the place on such a day. 

The first thing that strikes you about New York City’s “Ground Zero” site is that it’s so many different things now; it is a massive construction site primarily. They are currently building a new transport hub underground here, to replace the one that was destroyed a decade ago. There are new skyscrapers going up all around the perimeter, none of them quite so ambitious as the Twin Towers, but impressive enough and throbbing with the energy of new commerce. And then there is the “National September 11 Memorial and Museum,” currently being built at the epicenter of that awful episode nearly ten years ago. 

The plans for the Memorial appear to be quite moving: a pretty landscaped walkway with memorials, and a large pit in the center with cascading waterfalls pouring into it. It will be a grand urban canyon in a way, a symbolic opening into an under-world, and the use of water seems especially fitting: the image of the flow of time, of eternity, of the liquid strength needed to carve granite, as well as the ideal of purification and of washing devastation clean. 

The atmosphere was quite moving at noon. There were lots of workers in orange and yellow vests, having lunch individually and in groups. The New York Fire Department and Police Department were well represented, the US military surprisingly less so. And there were loads of tourists, speaking a pretty cacophony of different languages, seeking out the best photo-ops, pointing at where it appeared the buildings must have stood, and where they fell. 

I remember where they stood, remember coming here as a child, passing through the labyrinth of subway lines and entranceways, ascending the escalator past the endless rows of designer boutiques, then emerging at street level and finding it beyond belief or comprehension, the way you had to arch yourself nearly upside down to see to the top of the thing from ground level. I felt very small and those buildings felt very, very overwhelming. The sense of overwhelm I feel here now is very different, informed more by the sentiments of tragedy and of adulthood. This is not a place for children, anymore. The aura of the place now has something to do with sensing the fragility of all human construction, the mingled amazement and confusion at the manifold projects human beings can put their creative energies to—from pure creation to sheer and total destruction. 

The Port Authority of NY & NJ has erected a screen all around the Memorial construction site, so there was little to see as we perambulated yesterday.  There was one area of the screen where some people had left impromptu flower bouquets, scrawled graffiti and handwritten notes, balloons and the like.  Pasted over the part of the screen labeled “Church [yes Church] Street,” others had taped up the front pages from many of Monday’s newspapers. 

USA Today was rather muted: “Osama bin Laden is Dead, Obama Says.” 

Not so the local papers.  The New Jersey Star Ledger opined “Justice Has Been Done.”  The New York Post was pithier: “Got Him.” The Daily News cut to the heart: “Rot In Hell.” 

By contrast, Newsday refused to permit the Towers to be trumped by the architect of their destruction.  Their front page showed a lovely sunset image of the Twin Towers and said simply, “We Will Never Forget.” 

Others posted other things in this same section of the screen: the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List”; a “God Bless America” bumper sticker; even the so-called Flag of Honor constructed out of the names of all those who lost their lives here a decade ago, each printed in stripes of red, white and blue. 

God knows it’s understandable, the tumultuous range of sentiments.  I felt it too, uncertain how to feel exactly, and unsure what I’d come expecting to find.  The havoc created here was beyond describing, and the grief of shattered human lives multiplied by the tens of thousands brings us very close to the sacred place where language fails to capture the essences.  Tears have been more eloquent in the past, and now, perhaps, a raised fist or two. 

There were surprisingly few of those there, mostly just men and women on their lunch breaks doing what citizens trained in the habits of democratic exchange do at their best: argue about politics, and never stop laughing as they do so. I heard many snippets of funny conversations around the perimeter—about Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, President Obama, all of it seasoned by the unique way in which New Yorkers can turn the F-word into an eloquent adjective or a necessary noun. I began to feel proud here, which is not what I’d expected at all. The workers and public servants seemed aware of the quiet solemnity of the place and enobled it with a dignity that can coexist most attractively with joking and respectful laughter. There was a no-nonsense atmosphere of casual solidarity possible only among those who know the world can fall to pieces and will need to be built anew. 

As I picked up to leave, one image on the screen suddenly caught the attention: It was the Statue of Liberty, but this goddess was not holding the flame of liberty aloft; she was holding Osama bin Laden’s severed head. 

So that’s the image I ultimately walked away with, and that’s the image I’m still grappling with now. There are famous stories told of Roman emperors confronting the severed heads of their fallen rivals, more often than not granting them in death the admiring admission that no one rises that far, that fast without a very singular skill set. We had to kill them because of the threat they represented to our principles, but we grant them the respect we always owe a worthy rival, anyone who could actually be a threat to us. 

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”… and then the real praise commences–that’s the ironic idea the Romans understood a very long time before Shakespeare exploited the dramatic potential of the idea.  But to see in this way, you must look the enemy head in the face, ponder it, learn what it has to teach and say. 

The Statue of Liberty was depicted holding that head as it faced away from her.  She held it aloft as a trophy; she was not looking at it.  I was. 

And that’s when it hit me. This place is no longer a grave-site. This last death has ended that. The Statue of Liberty stands alone on an island. Osama bin Laden’s earthly remains were allegedly buried at sea. There will be no visual marker, no image, no memorial. 

The September 11 Memorial, by contrast is a site under construction, very much like our nation itself, ever on the way to becoming something else, something fresh and new. 

It will become a place of meditation and a place to ponder the enormity of these events and what they mean today. Perhaps the goddess of liberty can hold up that head as something more than a trophy, or an image of revenge. Perhaps there will be time and space in which to contemplate that face, to turn it around, and to ask ourselves what we see in it now. 

How did such a person become possible? How did he rise so far in such a short period of time? As we reflect on these questions, perhaps we can become more intentional in deliberating over how to make such a person less possible in the future.

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Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr. holds the William M. Suttles Chair in Religious Studies at Georgia State University.  He is an affiliate faculty member with the Hellenic Studies Center, is a research fellow of the Vatican Library Secret Archives, and regular contributor to Religion Dispatches. 

Lou earned his MA in Theology and Ethics at Duke University and his PhD, Graduate Division of Religion, from Emory University.  He is the author of six books including Was Greek Thought Religious, God Gardened East, and This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the heart of Christianity.  His current book projects are A Shrine to the Muses: The Modern Public Art Museum, Spiritual Space for an Irreligious Age and Winckelmann’s Secret History: the Birth of Art History and the Vatican’s First Profane Museum.

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