I’ve visited many sites of tragedy. I’ve been to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where over 1 million Jews were exterminated. I’ve visited Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Site, where the 1994 Rwandan killing of 20% of the country’s population over 100 days is remembered. I work a 10 minute walk from Toul Sleng, a former prison where Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tortured and killed over 17,000 people. Where I currently live, 2 million out of a population of 7.1 million died under the Khmer Rouge Regime from 1975 to 1979.
At all these places I was numbed. But found it difficult to fathom the tragedy. So when we decided to visit the 9/11 memorial site in New York last week, I expected a similar reaction.
I was surprised however how sad I felt at the site. Against the millions who were killed in Poland, Rwanda, Cambodia, and other similar countries that have gone through genocide, the 3000 people who died in 9/11 can somehow pale in numerical comparison. But even though fewer people died in the World Trade Centre and Plane terrorist acts, the depth of sentiment that the American people show towards that day I found quite overwhelming.
And it was that surrounding sentiment which made me feel so saddened at the actual site. Despite the 9/11 memorial being opened less than one month ago, on the 10th anniversary of the act, the queues to enter the area stretched around the block. We were however guided to a side entrance, for relatives of people who had succumbed in the tragedy.
We were being accompanied by a colleague whose father was in the World Trade Centre that day. Our colleague was only 12 years old the day his father passed away. Neither he nor his family had ever visited the 9/11 site, preferring to remember his father by playing golf like they would have done with him if he had still been alive. We located his father’s name on the North Pool bronze memorial. His father’s name was not arranged alphabetically together with the others. Instead his name was written beside a dear friend who also died in the attack, his company partner of 15 years. My colleague took some paper and a crayon and made an in-print of it to take away.
The memorial itself is apt. It comprises two large waterfalls and reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, set within the footprints of the original twin towers. The water flows to a point that cannot be seen and drowns out what could be gloomy silence. 400 swamp white oak trees have been planted to create a breathing space in the middle of this metropolis.
I think the visit reminded me that it’s not the numbers of people who die that qualify it a tragedy. It’s the taking away of a life that’s got more to give that is the real disaster.