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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 / 8 Tishrei, 5762

Crispin Sartwell

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Rebuilding after the disaster: New towers or new flowers? -- THE World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.

- Minoru Yamasaki, chief architect of the World Trade Center

   I want Bush tomorrow to say that we will rebuild it - taller, bigger, stronger.

- writer Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan and many others have called for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. The developer who holds the lease has vowed that the towers will rise again. It is easy to see the emotional appeal of such a view: it would show us defiant in the face of terror, unbowed, climbing again gleaming into the sky: taller, bigger, stronger.

The rebuilding of the WTC would have symbolic power. But before we undertake such a project, maybe we had better think about whether this is the particular set of symbols we want to reassert. The terrorists who destroyed the towers were thinking of their act as symbolic, and of the towers themselves as a symbol. They could not have really felt the human reality of what they were destroying; the human reality we see now continually on our televisions: the faces, the families, the communities shattered.

If we, too, insist on regarding the act symbolically, then we, too, will lose the human reality. We, too, will start killing people, shattering families, shattering communities as we retaliate.

And if we insist on understanding the WTC as a symbol, we lose the battle, because as a symbol, the WTC does not bear thinking about.

Yamasaki's claim that the WTC represented individual dignity is laughable. The building was absolutely inhuman in its scale and in its design. The area around its base was an uninhabitable valley of winds. The gleaming glass and steel rectangles were objects of a kind of unimaginable ferocity, a human imagination so dedicated to its own annihilation that it was the opposite of anything mammalian, a kind of refutation of the human body.

The aesthetic is high modernism, the perfect simplistic geometry an attempt to expunge anything expressive, idiosyncratic, particular into an absolute standard of purity and pristinity that was meant to transcend the human or immolate it.

The WTC was a symbol of a self-loathing so profound that it seeks an absolute power for human beings to destroy themselves in their particularity and humanity, a symbol of a pride so overweening that it builds Babels that the Bible could not have imagined, the attempt of David Rockefeller who envisioned it and Nelson Rockefeller under whose auspices it was built to become little gods.

The pyramids were built by slave labor as the attempt of the Pharaohs to transcend death - that is, to overcome their bodies. The huge structures of ancient Rome were built by people who demanded that they be worshiped as gods. The World Trade Center was built by people who intended to draw infinite amounts of cash from the world's economies to themselves. It was a symbol of greed, pride, and oppression, which is why terrorists flew planes into it.

We had better insist that the tragedy here was the destruction of real, particular human beings, and not of millions of tons of concrete and steel.

We had better insist that it was people, not symbols, who were destroyed. Let's build something human. Plant some trees. Make a garden or some homes: not a symbol, a real place; not a place to die, a place to live.

JWR contributor Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His website is Comment by clicking here.


08/01/01: Whatever identifies you, someone wants to steal it

© 2001, Crispin Sartwell