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Douglas LeBlanc

Stranger in a Strange Land

This issue of Books & Culture was already at the proof stage on September 11. It was strange but also good to continue with the mundane work of getting the issue out while we began to absorb the news of that terrible day.

The terrorist attack brought out the best and the worst in Americans: heroism from New Yorkers and xenophobia from thugs in various cities; a widely renewed solidarity, but also a temptation to pursue vengeance rather than justice. One troubling development within two days of the attack was hasty talk of rebuilding the two World Trade Center towers. "[I]f we must have a shrine or monument for our remorse, let's put it on the 200th floor, right next to the antiaircraft guns," wrote Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online, who sometimes doesn't know to put his contrarianism on a leash. And while Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was an inspiring leader of his besieged city, he shifted into Churchillian overdrive in promising that "the city's skyline will be restored."

Never mind that the twin towers represented 1970s architecture at its worst, betraying an ugly obsession with sleekness and uniformity; never mind that the greatness of a people is not measured by the height of their office buildings; never mind about the people who fell or leapt to their deaths from the immolated upper floors: American pride is at stake!

Now that terrorists have shown such deadly contempt for the World Trade Center, perhaps we should consider what those towers represented to the wider world. (The words Mammon and power come to mind.) Americans should not leave this space abandoned and barren, but nor should we feel that any new building shorter than 100 stories is somehow a crushing blow to the American soul.

Perhaps Americans will think better of new skyscrapers after rescuers have completed the grim task of finding every mangled body beneath the rubble of the twin towers. Perhaps then someone will remember the work of a Chinese American born in Ohio who now lives in New York City: Maya Lin.

If her name seems familiar to fans of design, it should: while still a student at Yale, Lin submitted her design for what became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Veterans groups and some pundits predicted that her design of black marble walls recessed into the ground would become a pit of despair, a memorial that denied veterans their dignity.

Instead, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial rapidly found a beloved place in Americans' hearts, and it attracts more than a million visitors annually. Some cities built their own smaller versions of the memorial, and a scaled-down replica traveled from state to state. Lin's monument achieved what no veterans parade could: it gave Americans a setting rich with meaning, where they could both weep about the Vietnam War and salute the people, dead and alive, who fought in that doomed mission.

As documented in the film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision and in her book Boundaries (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Lin has built a brilliant career as a designer of modern memorials and dramatic sculptures for public buildings such as Penn Station. For her alma mater, she designed The Women's Table (1993), which honors the history of women students at Yale. (Students and other New Haven residents gathered around the sculpture during a candlelight vigil to mourn the World Trade Center victims.)

At the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, another Lin sculpture pays tribute to the slain heroes of the civil rights movement. At Ohio State University's deconstructivist Wexner Center, Lin designed Groundswell, a sculpture of shattered glass that hints at a Zen rock garden.

In an essay published by The New York Review of Books, Lin described some other assumptions in designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial:

I felt that as a culture we were extremely youth-oriented and not willing or able to accept death or dying as a part of life. The rites of mourning, which in more primitive and older cultures were very much a part of life, have been suppressed in our modern times. In the design of the memorial, a fundamental goal was to be honest about death, since we must accept that loss in order to begin to overcome it. The pain of the loss will always be there, it will always hurt, but we must acknowledge the death in order to move on.

Americans needed no help in grieving immediately after the attacks. In the longer term, our temptation will be to invoke the victims merely as the reason for our superpower rage. We must never forget the names of these fellow Americans. Maya Lin's sharp vision would help us redeem a space made profane by the mass murder that stole them from us.

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