Ruth Ann Dailey: Out of the abyss at the 9/11 memorials

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The memorial pools at the site of the former twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City appear to be bottomless. That's what strikes you first about them, and it's what haunts you when you leave.

Just as there were once two towers, there is a North Pool and a South Pool, each about an acre in size. They are described as reflecting pools, but because they lie so far below ground level, they reflect only their own water-shrouded granite walls and an eternity of sky.

And at their centers, they plunge into nothingness.

You wouldn't have expected to find any memorial to a country's war dead as powerful as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, but this one is. Like the two wars from which they arise, though, they seize your heart in different ways, for different reasons.

Both memorials bear thousands of names. At the World Trade Center site, chest-high parapets surround the pools. Atop them are bronze plates, not quite 2 feet across, that incline slightly inward. Cut into the plates are the names of all the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks-- from the hijacked planes that crashed in New York, Stoney Creek, Pa., and the Pentagon -- as well as the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Last Monday, a single rose had been tucked into one of the incised names. We were visiting the pools just days before the ceremony to open the National September 11 Memorial & Museum .

It was a last-minute insertion into a free-wheeling day of sightseeing. It was an afterthought we will think about for years to come.

Afterward, we met a close relative for dinner, eager to share our powerful encounter with history. I'd forgotten, or perhaps never known, that she was in the city when the attacks occurred, living then, as now, near the site.

She will be part of one of the private tours of the museum that will be conducted before it opens to the public later this week. The museum lies at bedrock, 70 feet below the plaza, below the pools.

Our fresh impressions of the memorial soon ceded to her personal memories of 9/11, of the chaos and fear, of being confronted by an armed soldier when she tried to return home that evening. But in the remembering, even she, a writer, found words failing her, falling away like the water.

At the memorial pools, the water emerges from underneath the bronze ledge of names, and just after it slides over the top of the granite wall, small protrusions like a blunt comb separate the water into thousands of individual plumes. But all the individual fingers of water merge back into solid, vertical sheets as they plummet into the pool.

And far below you, at the center of each large reflecting pool, is a much smaller square into which all the water takes a second plunge. No matter where you stand along the perimeter of names, you cannot see the bottom of the central hole. It is an eternal pit of aching and loss.

Talk of a memorial began immediately after 9/11, while it was more than two decades after the first soldiers died and four years after our final defeat before the idea for a Vietnam memorial was launched.

The different responses to these two wars spring directly from their circumstances. The earlier war began gradually in a land far from our shores and escalated without our noticing. It ended in humiliation and failure.

Its name-bearing memorial, the Wall, emerges slowly from the ground, reaches a 10-foot height and then gradually recedes.

The later war -- the "war on terror" -- was seared into our consciousness on 9/11. The suddenness of the attack, the depravity of slaughtering civilians and its having happened on our own soil gave a moral clarity and outrage that prompted immediate action.

But the war on terror actually began years earlier, as the memorial tacitly acknowledges by including the 1993 trade center bombing victims.

However and whenever they began, both wars were about ideas first. They were not about acquiring territory to gain resources and wealth but about subjugating people to an ideology.

Tyranny is a many-headed beast. Whether it assumes the form of "godless Communists" who achieve purity by purging the religious and the intellectuals, or God-fearing radicals who achieve purity by killing all infidels, it's still tyranny.

As we fight it, there will be loss. There will be more names to inscribe on walls.

"Reflecting Absence" is the name the designer gave the 9/11 memorial pools, where bottomless pools reflect an eternal sky and rushing water imposes silence.

But perhaps there's a twin message: From remembrance springs renewal. Where so many died flow endless waters, and water, like liberty, is the source of life.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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