If a terrorist’s bomb had savaged the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in another day and age it’s quite possible that no evidence of the attack would mark the site today.
More often than not, scenes of violence and tragedy are wiped clean from the American landscape, obliterated or refurbished with nary a plaque to hallow the ground. When monuments and memorials are erected, history shows, it’s almost always well after the fact, long enough for the painful act to be cast in a patriotic or heroic light.
It took nearly a century for the Alamo, site of a bloody defeat, to be re-christened “the shrine of Texas liberty.” The same was true for Abraham Lincoln, who waited almost 50 years to be immortalized in the city of his death. The shame in Dallas after the slaying of John F. Kennedy kept the Texas School Book Depository from becoming “The Sixth Floor Museum” for 26 years.
But times have changed, and the victims of the blast here two years ago today are not about to wait for history to tell them what to feel. Even before the rubble was cleared from the Murrah footprint, they had hurled themselves into the emotionally precarious task of reclaiming the site, commemorating a loss they were only just beginning to mourn. They have been at it ever since, meeting and debating, hugging and shouting, grappling with every last excruciating detail - from an inspiring “world-class” symbol anchoring the project to a special place for making “cherished children” feel at home.
“We’re desperately searching for some sense out of the senselessness, and this is one way we can find that,” said Kathleen Treanor, whose 4-year-old daughter, along with her in-laws, perished in the Social Security office.
The nation will get a better idea of what Oklahoma City has in mind today, when three to five finalists culled from an international design competition are unveiled. The winner, to be announced July 3, will be expected to transform the heart of downtown into a multimillion-dollar memorial complex, a place of remembrance offering “comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity,” to an anticipated 1 million visitors a year.
Covering two city blocks, the project’s size, scale and spiritual magnitude is most commonly compared to that of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Besides a sculptural monument, highlighted by gardens and fountains, the site will host an information center, archives and possibly an anti-terrorism institute.
“You will be walking into a sacred place,” said Karen Luke, vice chairwoman of the nonprofit Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation.
The unprecedented scope of the memorial is a function of the crime that inspired it. The bombing, which killed 168 and wounded more than 500 others, brought home to Americans the realities of terrorism in a way unmatched by any other act of violence.
But Oklahoma City’s response is also shaped by several other factors unrelated to the attack, from the victims’ rights movement to the confessional zeal of popular culture to Oklahoma’s own Dust Bowl-era identity crisis. Together, they say something about the increasingly public way in which America remembers its dead.
“Not so long ago, a memorial of this sort would have been considered improper, almost an affront to a community’s self-image,” writes Kenneth E. Foote in “Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy,” a study of memorial sites.
Now, however, “there’s much more of a sense that grieving is good, that it should be done in public, that it’s not something that should be tucked away,” Foote, a geography professor, added in an interview.
Catharsis, more than lofty artistic notions, is what drove the Oklahoma City survivors and victims’ families to hatch their plans. As if to taunt their own fears, they held the charter meeting of the memorial task force at First Christian Church, the same site officials had used two months earlier to notify families of the dead.
From the beginning, the whole setup was unwieldy, with more than 350 participants, divided among 10 subcommittees, all charged with institutionalizing history even as it was unfolding.
The questions to be resolved were often tedious, sometimes agonizing: Is it appropriate to honor survivors in the same area as the dead? Do the unborn children of pregnant victims merit special mention? Should the images of recognizable people be included in the design, such as baby Baylee Almon cradled by a firefighter, or is that demeaning to other victims? Should the 19 children who perished be given a separate tribute, or is that an affront to mourning parents whose children just happened to be grown?
Although the finalists for the sculptural part of the memorial - which will be paid for by an $8.8 million private fund-raising campaign - were secret until today, the entire field of 600 entries was on exhibit here last month. Despite coming from all 50 states and 23 foreign countries, they shared a remarkable uniformity in their symbolism.
Many featured monoliths with fissures (broken hearts), dripping water (tears), glass towers (fragility) and rainbow-projecting prisms (hope), as well as outstretched hands, curling ribbons, rising flames and sorrowful angels.
William W. Savage Jr., a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, cast a jaundiced eye on the process.
“Undeniably, it was a great tragedy and a great loss, but when you make a fetish out of it - revisiting the wounds and keeping them alive almost on a daily basis - you run the risk of turning this whole thing into a freak show,” he said.
Others disagree. Crafting a loving and enduring tribute, after all, is a way of taking control of a tragedy. The alternative - to be paralyzed by anguish and rage - is considered tantamount to defeat, a surrender to the terrorist’s twisted aims.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.