Reflecting absence: 15 years since September 11 attacks

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During his visit to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on in September 2015, Pope Francis looks at a Bible fragment found in the rubble following the 2001 terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
During his visit to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on in September 2015, Pope Francis looks at a Bible fragment found in the rubble following the 2001 terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Reverence engendered by spending time in churches also can be stirred through visits to other locations that embrace a similar spirit – and one place that bears reflection on this date is the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

On 11 September, 2001, four co-ordinated terrorist attacks were launched by al-Qaeda members who commandeered commercial aircraft in the United States. Two of the hijacked planes crashed into the tall twin towers of the World Trade Centre which then dominated the skyline at the southern end of the city.

Nearly 3000 people including the 19 terrorists were killed. Most of the dead were found amid the wreckage of the two towers.

Planners looking to the future of the site quickly decided to incorporate a memorial to the dead and launched an international competition to seek an appropriate design.

One, dubbed “Reflecting Absence” by architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker, was selected more than 5000 submissions from 63 countries.

Two large illuminated pools covering the areas which formed the base of the towers create the central points of reference for the monument, covering 2.5 hectares of prime real estate near the city’s famed financial hub – Wall Street.

The walls of those pools create a series of cascading waterfalls with the names of the victims of the terrorist attacks inscribed around their edges, and a grove of white oak trees and a museum completes the contribution to their honour.

A woman touches the names at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. The 2001 terrorist attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3000 people in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. Photo: CNS/Andrew Kelly, Reuters
A woman touches the names at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. The 2001 terrorist attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3000 people in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. Photo: CNS/Andrew Kelly, Reuters

Although the site has become a tourist attraction virtually since the date of the attacks 15 years ago, there is a certain reverence displayed by visitors.

Many people in the crowds that I saw during a recent visit paused to reflect above the pools before moving into the museum which houses many remnants of the buildings that fell and also the damaged emergency equipment which had raced the scene.

Conversation is mostly in tones hushed by consideration of the immense damage and losses that day in vein somewhat similar to the spiritual embrace that can develop among visitors to war memorials.

Taking time to pause at the Anzac War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, away from the bustle of city streets, provides opportunities to reflect on lives lost in conflict.

Both the impressive Hyde Park building and its national counterpart in Canberra, the Australian War Memorial were designed in the wake of what had been billed as The Great War: the biggest that had occurred up to that time, with hopes that something like it would never recur. But time quickly overturned that optimism.

Vandals have attacked both the Anzac Memorial and the Kokoda Track display at Concord on several occasions and damage was caused to monuments in three American states ahead of that nation’s Memorial Day last May, but most people come to in reverence and prayer.

Like the 9/11 Memorial, an international competition sought a suitable design for the Hyde Park monument after a campaign for public funding was launched on the first anniversary of Anzac Day. Bruce Dellit created the winning entry, which was officially opened on 24 November, 1934.

The much larger Australian War Memorial in Canberra was inspired by our official World War I historian, Charles Bean who had conceived a creation to honour Australian soldiers while observing and recording their contributions to battles in France in 1916.

A design competition in 1927 failed to produce a winner but Sydney architects John Crust and Emil Sodersten then worked together on a revised design, which was opened on Remembrance Day 1941.

Last Post ceremonies conducted just before closing time since April 2013 feature a different story each day from among 102,815 names inscribed on the Memorial’s Wall of Honour. Visitors are moved to reflect on lives lost in the quest for peace and many people offer quiet prayers.

Bean once said of the building: “A monument to great hearted men, and for their nation – a possession forever”.

Much the same can be said of our major churches: monuments to the greatest hearted deity, built to serve the faithful – and designed to last.

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