Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Visit to the Flight 93 Memorial

Last month, on an impossibly sunny Saturday afternoon, I made a pilgrimage to the rural Pennsylvania field where forty passengers and crew of United Flight 93 met their heroic, horrific end.

The temporary Flight 93 memorial -- a chain-link fence, roughly forty feet long by eleven feet tall -- lies a few hundred yards from the actual crash site, now set aside as sacred ground and inaccessible to visitors. The fence is covered on both sides from top to bottom, stem to stern, with individual tokens of love and remembrance: American flags and Fourth of July bunting, the tiny license plates kids often place on their bicycles, baseball caps, a leather jacket, a craft shop's worth of religious bric-a-brac, garlands of flowers (both artificial and real), and a black plyboard panel covered with patches from policemen and firefighters.

Several half-buried granite slabs are nearby. Most hail from regional motorcycle clubs, but one, slightly awkward in its phrasing, is from a resident of Guatemala. Forty handmade wooden angels lie on the fringe of the site, along with several small wooden crosses and a concrete statue (I did not recognize the saint) bestrewn with rosaries. A shoulder-high marble marker lists the names of Flight 93 passengers and crew -- visitors have left indecipherable medals and trinkets on top -- and a life-sized wooden cross, draped in white cloth and covered with badges, pins and buttons from ground to eye level, dominates the site.

A prefabricated storage shed, painted light grey, serves as the official visitor center, though there's nothing inside. Several benches just beyond bear the names of the heroes of Flight 93; arranged in a rough semicircle, they form a small amphitheater where volunteers tell, briefly and respectfully, the story of that fateful flight. A guest book rests inconspicuously on a brown metal podium; two metal guard rails leading to the site are festooned with bumper stickers. I notice that one sticker, which originally read "MAKE LOVE NOT WAR," has had the word LOVE ripped away.

It's impossible to conceive of a memorial to Flight 93 more deeply heartfelt, or more truly American, than the one we have at present. The tacky detritus of consumer-culture tourism, which in ordinary circumstances might signify the decay of human emotion, here suggests the very opposite: At the Flight 93 memorial, every visitor leaves something behind, and though each memento mori may be insignificant in itself, the baroque profusion and variety of these objects overwhelm any latent critical faculties, and give the sense of collective national grief -- something not imposed from above, but deeply felt from within and among us.

A permanent memorial is in the planning stages, with a wide access road, a multimedia museum-and-theater complex, long low granite walls, and a parking lot worthy of a Wal-Mart. In some ways, no doubt, it would be an improvement over the current site, but the idea nonetheless leaves me cold. No matter how well-intentioned a permanent memorial might be in theory, it will be the product of one architectural firm, one landscape contractor, one monument committee overseeing the enterprise. Our trinkets and beads -- our individual contributions and commemorations -- will be welcome, no doubt, but they will no longer serve as the main point of attention. Instead, these gifts will be integrated into a grander design, and rendered subservient to someone else's point of view.

It seems too soon to cede Flight 93 to the official custodians of public memory. True, the scars on the landscape are healing rapidly enough: The Pentagon was rebuilt long ago, and the new Freedom Tower is finally under construction. This is as it should be. But our grief and our loss are not so easily cast aside, and only at the Flight 93 Memorial can we still confront them head on. The fence and the field, isolated and forlorn, evoke the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when both our sympathy and outrage were spontaneous, our nation's wounds were fresh and bleeding, and Americans who wanted to help their neighbors sought any outlet they could find. The makeshift memorial we have performs its work of remembrance as nothing else can, and it deserves to remain as it is, where it is, for a little while longer.

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