Commentary: 9/11 Memorial Needs Work

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Two memorials to the victims of 9/11 are in the news this week – one from the agency that’s rebuilding Ground Zero, the other from a Hollywood studio. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says one works, the other is still a work in progress.

LEHRER: The film United 93 cost just $15 million to make, according to Universal Studios. It’s expected to take in more than $20 million by the end of this weekend. And it’s getting positive reviews from family members and critics alike as a fitting tribute to the heroic passengers who died on that flight. By contrast, the official World Trade Center Memorial is now expected to cost a billion dollars, and almost no one seems satisfied with what all that money is buying.

The release of “United 93” at first sparked questions about sensationalizing the events of that awful day, and about whether it was too soon to depict those events on film. Both questions have now been answered by the film itself and the public response. The movie does not sensationalize and it is never too soon for art, if it’s good.

But the problems at Ground Zero raise a far deeper issue – an issue of public trust in public institutions.

Right after 9/11, trust in government soared. Rudy Giuliani became America’s Mayor for his comforting but forthright leadership in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. President Bush got 80 percent approval ratings for telling the enemy we’d smoke ‘em out while promising Muslims we’d never discriminate. And the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan was launched as a model of democracy – with town hall meetings, open competitions, and true public input that resulted in the scrapping of one design for the area and the embrace of Daniel Liebeskind as Master Planner, Michael Arad as designer of the Memorial.

But slowly, gradually, step by step, trust has been squandered at every level. The badly-planned war in Iraq is the biggest reason. The bungled response to Hurricane Katrina multiplied its effect. And locally, the model of democracy that began the rebuilding effort has deteriorated into endless bickering between a greedy developer and a patronizing Governor. Even the 9/11 families have come to be seen as a special interest group, though no one wants to say that too loudly.

Thursday’s announcement that the World Trade Center Memorial would now double in cost compared to the original estimate is just the latest assault on trust in public works, and echoes the rising cost of the war in treasure and in blood that the government also never prepared us for.

The good news is: even in an imperfect democracy, American voters can still hold the politicians somewhat accountable. Nationally, there’s a throw the bums out mood that might result in power changing hands in Congress.

But the help wanted sign is still very much out: New York and America seek Leaders who can speak some truth to a nation still very confused about to respond to 9/11 - militarily, emotionally, even architecturally. In the meantime, let’s go to the movies. It’s never too soon for art.