The Flight 93 Memorial, Revisited

The memorial to the passengers and crew of Flight 93 was dedicated yesterday in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The memorial is not yet complete, and I believe the portions that have been built so far are non-controversial. President Bush gave a characteristically excellent speech at the dedication ceremony:

You may remember that there was considerable controversy when the design for the Flight 93 memorial was unveiled. It was called “Crescent of Embrace.” The crescent is, of course, the central symbol of Islam, and the design apparently was intended to symbolize some sort of rapprochement with that religion. The winning design was chosen by a jury, and some members of the jury, including Thomas Burnett, whose son was one of the heroes who brought down the airplane, vigorously opposed it. As I understand it, no one on the jury questioned the Muslim reference inherent in the crescent, but a majority believed that it would somehow be “healing” for the memorial to be, in part at least, a sort of tribute to Islam.

Announcement of the winning design by the National Park Service provoked a torrent of outrage. The result was that the Park Service had the design changed (I believe by the architect who created the original Crescent of Embrace, Paul Murdoch) so that it is now a circle–a “broken circle,” as it is described–rather than a crescent. The difference is at best a subtle one, and opposition to the project continued, led by Burnett and Alec Rawls. Rawls has a site called Crescent of Betrayal that contains a great deal of information about the Park Service’s design for the memorial. These images show how the revised design on the right is really the same as the original crescent, except that a grove of trees has been added to create the “broken circle” motif:

This video features both Burnett and Rawls speaking against the crescent design for the memorial:

Rawls, Burnett and others have lodged additional criticisms of the design. They say that the crescent points toward Mecca and is, in fact, a traditional Islamic mihrab. They point out that one of the memorial’s most striking features (not yet constructed, I believe) is the Tower of Voices, which they describe as “a year-round accurate Islamic prayer-time sundial.” It is shaped–wait for it–like a crescent, and 40 wind chimes hang inside it, representing the 40 dead passengers and crew members:

Rawls and his colleagues have elaborate explanations of how the elements of the memorial constitute a tribute to triumphant Islam. They have taken out newspaper ads to rally opposition against the still-uncompleted project; you can see the ad here. Are they right? As to the details of their claims, I am not sure. It is hard to believe that the architect who designed the memorial is a fifth columnist who deliberately encoded an elaborate pro-Muslim extremism theme into his design, and that the Park Service fell for it.

More fundamentally, though, I think they are right. There is no question that the original design, which survives more or less intact in the current iteration, is built around the central symbol of Islam. Some on the jury, in a spirit of reconciliation, thought this was a good thing. I think it is an absurdity–much as if the Pearl Harbor memorial were to feature a rising sun, or the Norman American Cemetery were laid out in the shape of a swastika. For once, I agree with former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell:

“This is where Americans first fought back,” [Rendell] said prior to the start of the ceremony. “In New York and at the Pentagon they were innocent victims because they didn’t know what was going on.

“The passengers aboard Flight 93 heard by phone from their family members what was happening and they decided to fight back.These were the first warriors in the fight on terrorism and they should be honored in ways like no others.”

The men and women of Flight 93 weren’t victims, they were victors. It is hard to imagine the courage required to coolly plan to crash an airplane on which you are a passenger, and then carry out that desperate intent by overcoming a gang of armed, vicious mass murderers. I can’t think of an act simultaneously more courageous and more noble. To “honor” these men and women through a tortured exercise in political correctness is ridiculous. I am not sure what the contemporary equivalent of a statue of a man on horseback is, but whatever that might be, they deserve it.

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