Friday, August 20, 2010

Hallowed Ground

The first weekend of April and October, in the middle of the White Sands desert of New Mexico, near Alamogordo, you can gain entrance to one of the most important sites in American history. Down a dusty road, and through gates, lies an area, normally inaccessible to anyone other than a member of the military, cordoned off, containing nothing more that the twisted stumps of a tall tower and a stone cairn monument with a plaque, noting the importance of the place. It is called Trinity Site, and it is the home of the first atomic explosion on Earth generated by humans. July 16th, 1945, a plutonium bomb, similar to the "Fat Man" device dropped on Nagasaki, was detonated atop a tower in the middle of the desert, as proof of concept that an atomic bomb worked. It was the moment when the genie was let out of the bottle, when Pandora's box was opened and the demons of our nature were loosed, and would lead to a tense standoff that threatened the life of everyone on the planet for over forty years. This place has been preserved, as a reminder of where our trip into the modern age began.

Go to south-central Pennsylvania, a tiny town of less than seventy-five hundred, and you find a six thousand acre park, the remains of the most significant battle of the American Civil War, when the forces of Confederate General Robert E. Lee met the Union Army under the command of General George Meade, in an attempt by the Confederacy to force the war into the North, and, possibly, threaten Washington, D.C. After three days of ferocious battle from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, Lee was beaten and forced to withdraw back over the Potomac River. Though the war would continue for almost two more years, the tide of the war began to shift to the Union, and Robert E. Lee lost some of his mystique of infallibility. It was a titanic struggle of two committed forces, determined to strike a blow against the other, and it led to around 50,000 casualties, a staggering number that was almost evenly split between the two sides. Where the Union could survive such a loss of manpower, the Confederacy could not. It was the fundamental shift that would lead, ultimately, to the end of the Confederacy and the reestablishment of the Union.

A short boat ride on any warm and sunny day will take you a brilliant white memorial, straddling a section of the Peal Harbor Naval Base. At the memorial site, you can look down on the rusting remains of a hulking ship, the battleship USS Arizona, lying where it was sunk in a surprise attack by the Japanese Navy on December 7th, 1941. Only the tops of the mounts where two of the main turrets were still reach up out to the depth of the harbor; the rest of it lies below the surface of the water, clearly visible a short distance down, slowly being consumed by rust and corrosion. Every so often, a dark blob breaks the surface, and spreads out as a shiny and rainbow-tinged circle. These are bubbles of oil, rising up from the ship's fuel stores, called the "tears of the ship." Perhaps the ship still weeps for all the names listed in black on the tall marble wall at one end of the memorial, a monument to the gallant men who gave their lives that day.

These places are what we call hallowed ground, places that retain a meaning beyond their mere existence, but for what happened there and what those events represent for humanity. They are preserved in as natural a state as possible, an attempt to retain a small part of what made those places important. We would not go to Gettysburg and expect to see the corpses of the fallen, or ground strewn with rifles and broken artillery; what we do see is the terrain, and the monuments that stand in for those who fell. It is up to us to go and use out imagination, to insert ourselves as best we can into these places, and try to take something away from them.

Recently, a lot has been made of the plans to build a Muslim community center near the site of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th, 2001. There have been constant references to Ground Zero as being "hallowed ground," and claiming that building this center is some kind of besmirching of the memories of the victims of that day. The rhetoric that is flung around is far more overwrought than necessary; far from being some kind of insult, such a place would hold the potential to broaden people's minds as to the true spirit of Islam, and perhaps build bridges that could eliminate future attacks, by creating mutual respect and understanding.

The acrimony really boils down to one simple question: is Ground Zero hallowed ground? The answer, to me, is no. Ground Zero, far from being preserved as a memorial to the events of that day, was immediately subject to the forces of commerce, and its reclamation for use in building new office and commercial space on the site went off apace, with nary a voice of dissent from any of the groups now clamoring for the Islamic center to be built elsewhere. As we approach the ninth anniversary of that horrific day, the site, though the scene of much construction, still has no building there, no memorial, nothing remaining that would truly illustrate what that day meant to New York City, America, and the world, except for some large picture illustrations. Like so much of New York City, it is being consumed by the incessant need of the city to reinvent and restructure itself, swallowing up its history, and changing it into new things. The fight for preservation has been on-going for more than a century, but it sometimes cannot resist the tide of greed and money that seems to permeate everything.

For those who are outraged, to have that outrage match the actuality of it, then the site of the World Trade Center would still be a hole, filled with crushed rubble, shards of twisted, blackened metal reaching toward the sky like the fingers of the dead, attempting to reach up to wrench down the cowards who perpetrated this crime, and drag them down into the depths of Hades, to await their fate. Instead, it is a virtually empty concrete pit, cleaned and scrubbed of rubble and metal, swept free of the debris of the day, to form the base of a new, gleaming building, to rise like a glass and steel middle finger, aimed at those who would see us as enemies to their way of life. Somewhere, in some corner, perhaps some "suitable" memorial might be built, a small concession to the need to remember what happened there, but kept small enough not to take up valuable real estate.

I would ask, before another voice is raised in horror at the thought of a Muslim community center so close to Ground Zero, that the owner of that voice, and all the other voices raised in anger, take a long, hard look at the place, and ask themselves if the site is still truly hallowed, or has, perhaps, become more hollowed, stripped of everything that made it truly important to us, ruining it as a memorial to the three thousand people who lost their lives there. Perhaps they, too, wonder what we were thinking, in sweeping away the past.

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