Up from ground zero: Memorializing mass murder

Holocaust survivor Terrence Des Pres once called it "the predicament of aftermath": how to live in and memorialize an age marked by mass atrocity.

Our commemorative landscape is populated by battlefields that have traditionally celebrated sacrifice and martial valor. Only recently, however, has this landscape invited people to struggle with the meaning of mass murder.

The dedication of the Oklahoma City National Memorial as a National Park Service site in April 2000 sent a clear message: that sites of mass murder will be significant places of memory. Like other historic sites, they are important for mourning, education, and even public activism.

Almost immediately after the 1995 bombing, some relatives of Oklahoma City victims were afraid that a memorial would be done without their input. In response, Mayor Ron Norick appointed local attorney Robert Johnson to chair what would become a 350-person task force. The task was to shape a process that would lead to selection of a memorial.

Wisely, Mr. Johnson and others understood that the voices of those seared by violence - family members, survivors, and rescuers - were crucial to the success of the process. The task force thought it unwise to focus immediately on design, even though ideas were pouring into the city and lobbying efforts for the prestige of designing a memorial were under way.

The task force solicited public input on what people should "think, feel, or experience" at a memorial. Out of their work came a mission statement that guided them through volatile issues, such as: Should a busy street in front of the former Murrah Building be closed so that the memorial could occupy significant space? Or, if survivors' names are to be listed on the site, how does one define who is a survivor?

Only then came a design competition that brought 624 submissions, leading to the selection of an evocative memorial that features 168 empty, lighted chairs, one for each of those killed. Shortly after, came the opening of a memorial center museum exhibition, and a research center for the prevention of terrorism.

The process was difficult, as family members and survivors had to learn to work with each other and with civic volunteers. Rhythms of mourning were incorporated into their work. Trust emerged gradually, as the leadership demonstrated time and again their absolute commitment to the primacy of the voices of family members and survivors.

The result is a memorial that is a place of mourning. It is a place of protest against the anonymity of mass death in our time, a place of faces, names, stories. It is, like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an activist memorial environment, where visitors are challenged not just to "remember," but to be energized to renewed civic engagement through their encounter with the site and the museum.

After visiting the World Trade Center site, and the rural site near Shanksville, Penn., I am struck by how important a model the Oklahoma City process can be.

In New York City, as in Oklahoma City, many turned immediately to design, as if a particular memorial could somehow resolve the horror of Sept. 11 and locate it securely in memory. Soon, however, others called the site "sacred ground," and voiced concern that rebuilding or even a hasty memorial selection would defile the site.

Ground zero presents daunting challenges. The presence of cremated remains of both victims and perpetrators makes it an open grave. More recently, bereaved communities of family members, survivors, and rescuers have emerged, each with differing perspectives. Incorporating their voices into the process will be crucial, difficult, and ultimately enriching. Oklahoma City teaches that the process is at least as important as the result.

IN Shanksville, a small, rural community will struggle with its role in the constellation of sites commemorating Sept. 11. The townspeople will memorialize an event that did not claim a life from their community, an event that was more than an act of mass murder: Passengers fought with hijackers and crashed the plane before it reached its target. The town will continue to host family members coming to the site.

The Oklahoma City model suggests that the voices of the bereaved can work together with professionals to create a memorial. It also suggests that the process can be an important part of people's struggle with the meaning of violence.

And it reveals that a bereaved community can work together - often painfully - toward a powerful vision of memorialization that includes and moves beyond "What do I want?" to a larger vision of a memorial that grapples with atrocity.

• Edward T. Linenthal is professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin and author of 'The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory' (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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