The 9-11 memorial overlooking Highway 90 West by Lackland Air Force Base was conceived and built by the New Life Christian Center. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

9-11 peace memorial or permanent call to arms?

An eternal flame, a reflecting pool, a "Wall of Peace," and names of the fallen carved in granite: The San Antonio 9-11 Memorial, dedicated this fall on a hill overlooking Highway 90 West, borrows elements of classic national monuments to create a hodge-podge tribute to a state of war. The visual effect of the work is not unlike an outdoor, modern Christian church, which makes sense since the memorial was conceived and built by the New Life Christian Center. The site's proximity to Lackland Air Force Base and Wilford Hall Medical Center gives it a public imprimatur that it hasn't necessarily earned - Judge Nelson Wolff's and Mayor Ed Garza's appearances at the dedication ceremony notwithstanding.

The half-million dollar project was originally conceived in 1998 as the International Peace Memorial, but was redesigned following the al Qaeda-planned attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The 10,000 square feet of construction is modest, with the eternal flame pillar rising to a non-threatening 36 feet and blue water in the fountains suggesting a calming intent. But what purpose can the etched names of the 3,067 individuals who died on 9-11 serve so far from the site of the attacks? If the builders' goal is remembrance and reverence, then why include a flag pole for broadcasting the Department of Homeland Security's threat level warnings? Peter Onofre, a director of the non-profit International Community Development Corporation, the arm of the church that compiled the funds, has been quoted as saying that the flags will be changed daily to reflect the state of alert.


Memorials and monuments are a visual history that reinforce our identity, our story of ourselves. In a very concrete way, they can affect how present and future generations see their role in society, which in turn shapes individual and collective action. The eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier serves as a reminder that many unrecognized individuals sacrifice their lives for the greater good. The reflecting pools at the Washington Monument and at the site commemorating the Oklahoma City bombing call for self and national reflection in the face of our overwhelming political and military capability. The hundreds of thousands of names carved in the black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C, serve as a somber record of the irrevocable human loss caused by the misuse of power.

But all of these elements, tossed together like a Betty Crocker recipe at the San Antonio 9-11 Memorial, deserve a critical eye. Is this a place for reflection or a site for propaganda? There shouldn't be a Pearl Harbor monument in every state any more than relatives of victims should serve on juries. The principal is the same: Our system of justice, civil and military, is opposed to vigilantism and rash action, which means cooler heads must prevail. If we have no desire to become a country that suffers from 500-year-old grudges, then one memorial per national wound will have to suffice. While the professed purpose of New Life's monument may be to create a peace memorial, the eternal flame, so far from the site of the attacks, so close to a military hospital, appears much more like an old-fashion warning beacon on the heights, a permanent call to arms. •

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