Magazine article The New Yorker

Requiem

Magazine article The New Yorker

Requiem

Article excerpt

The debate about how to memorialize the victims of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City--the only event in recent American history that comes remotely close to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan--went on for more than two years. Oklahoma City is a small town compared to New York, with a population of roughly five hundred thousand, and it is relatively homogeneous. There was no pressure to restore the site of the bombed building to commercial use, as there is at the World Trade Center, and yet the Oklahoma City National Memorial, as the park on the site is called, wasn't dedicated until the fifth anniversary of the bombing. The other half of the memorial, an interactive museum and information center, opened recently, nearly six years after the event it was created to commemorate. It is difficult to imagine things being easier, or moving faster, in New York.

The main feature of the Oklahoma City memorial is a set of a hundred and sixty-eight chairlike objects, made of bronze and glass, one for each person killed. The chairs are arranged in rows and spread out across the footprint of the Murrah Building. They face a large reflecting pool and an elm tree that escaped damage in a parking lot across the street. The tree became known as the "survivor tree," and it is now surrounded by a stone terrace. Two monumental bronze-panelled walls serve as gateways to the site. One of them is inscribed "9:01" and the other "9:03," marking the minute before the bomb went off on the morning of April 19, 1995, and the minute after. The space between the two gateways represents 9:02.

I went to Oklahoma City late this fall, when fires were still smoldering at Ground Zero. Larry Silverstein, who held the lease on the Trade Center towers, was loudly vowing to rebuild the same amount of office space, possibly in four shorter towers. Since then, Silverstein has quieted down a bit, and concedes that there might be room for various other things on the site. The head of the new state authority charged with rebuilding, John C. Whitehead, has said that he expects to build a memorial that is the equal of the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Vietnam Veterans Memorials in Washington, D.C., although he didn't indicate what he meant by that. He has also talked about including housing, office towers, and cultural facilities on the site, which is certain to arouse the ire of many families of the victims of the attack, who want it to be treated as hallowed ground.

Oklahoma City faced many of the same issues. In "The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory"(Oxford; $30), Edward T. Linenthal writes that "conducting business as usual would defile the site in the eyes of many." Linenthal, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin and has also written about the struggle over the creation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, sets out a narrative that prefigures many of the events surrounding the World Trade Center catastrophe. Firemen became national icons, fences became spontaneous memorials, covered with pictures, notes, messages, and memorabilia. Some people felt that "a new building would signal defiance of terrorism," Linenthal writes, and others suggested leaving the ruins in place as "an evocative reminder of loss, and of the enduring dangers of violence." The Oklahoma City wreckage became a kind of pilgrimage site, attracting both mourners and voyeurs.

Leaving the ruins of the Murrah Building as a monument in themselves was never much of an option. The governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, said that what was left was "an eyesore . . . a symbol of destruction and terror that people here would much rather put behind them." In the end, several nearby buildings that had been seriously damaged were taken down, the street that the Murrah Building faced was closed, and three acres was turned into a memorial district. A building that had been damaged and whose tenant chose not to return was used to house the museum. …

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