Today, seven years after terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon, killing 184 people, a memorial to that attack will be dedicated. That it has taken seven years to erect this memorial is a testimony to our uncertainty as to how best to memorialize the events of that day.
In contrast to the Pentagon memorial, any memorial to the victims in New York is "years away." Reinhold Martin of Columbia calls the situation at "Ground Zero" an "incredible mess." The iconic status of the site, combined with "disagreements and competing priorities among government agencies, family groups, and Wall Street interests," has made settling on a design near impossible.
While we debate what to do with stone and metal, there are some things we can do with our thoughts and actions right now.
I do know this: The best way to honor those who died has nothing to do with architecture.
One group is calling on Americans to make September 11 a "national day of charitable service." They urge us to "volunteer, donate to a cause, or perform another good deed of [our] own choosing."
Charitable service is always a good idea, and any attempt to inspire volunteerism is welcome. So is the decision by the presidential candidates to pull campaign ads on this day. That kind of respectfulness is appropriate.
But there is more to memorials than architecture and good deeds, as important as they are. The word memorial comes from the Latin word memor, which means "mindful," "remembering," and even "grateful."
What should we remember? Of course, we remember the victims and their families. And we are grateful for those, such as the New York firefighters and police, who died trying to save others.
But we should also be mindful of why they died. We should not let the passage of time dull us to the threat posed by those who perpetrated the attack, their distorted worldview, and their continuing determination to kill us. You can be sure that bin Laden, his followers, and would-be followers will be celebrating the seventh anniversary of these attacks and calling for more just like them.
Events like the Madrid and London bombings testify to the continuing appeal of al Qaeda-like jihadism. The cult of the suicide bomber is, unfortunately, alive and well in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Their resilience should come as no surprise: Their memories go back nearly 1,400 years. They bemoan events that took place before the discovery of America. Their attention span and patience easily accommodate seven years. The real question is: Do ours?
We should also remember that their inability—for now—to attack us on our own soil does not mean they cannot threaten our way of life. Recent months have highlighted our dependence on foreign oil—oil that disproportionately comes from the part of the world where these enemies are most active.
While architecture can honor the past, the only memorial worthy of that name are the lessons we learn that keep the past from ever being repeated again.