“Ground Zero,” Civil War Memory, and Contested Landscapes

Like many of you I’ve been closely following the heated controversy surrounding the plans to locate the Cordoba Institute within a few blocks of “Ground Zero” in Manhattan.  While I have an opinion about this I’ve tried my best to maintain a safe distance from the debate in order to take in the broader picture.  Admittedly, such a step is difficult for me to maintain since I lost my cousin on 9-11.  Alisha Levin was 34 yrs. old and worked as a Human Resources manager for Fuji Bank in the South Tower.  She left a message on her parent’s answering machine to say that she was safe just after the first tower was hit.

For those of us interested in the emotion that often accompanies questions about how to commemorate historical landscapes this recent debate is instructive.  The lines between different historical memories are already well entrenched.  The many interest groups who lay claim to the site of 9-11 are also easily delineated.  Various stakeholders in this contest have already voiced positions on the architecture of the proposed new complex as well as a planned memorial for the site.  That an Islamic Center located 2-blocks from Ground Zer0 – as opposed to the schlock that has been sold on the actual site for some time – can generate such a response is also instructive.  It should come as no surprise that the debate has been defined by such passion given the nature of the attack, the scale of the destruction, and the death toll.  In my view every American has a stake in how the landscape is shaped in the coming years regardless of the legal and constitutional questions involved.

At the same time it is clear that the strong passions of those who claim ownership of this site are a function of different factors.  The families are moved by the memories and loss of loved ones; others are clearly using this issue for political purposes; and, a third group is driven as much by fear of Islam as they are by a sense of national loss and a desire to assign blame.  Of course, the spectrum of interested parties is much broader.  How our collective memory of this site will shift in the coming decades is anyone’s guess.  After all, it was probably difficult to imagine reunions between Japanese and American veterans of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  The passage of time shifts our focus as subsequent generations become more removed from the emotions of those who lived through the event.  With time we are able to explore aspects of a remembered past in a way that cushions still latent emotions.  At some point those emotions are more a result of choice than a direct connection to the generation that directly experienced some aspect of the event.  Even for those who experienced the event itself or as an extension of one of the victims the passage of time leaves the rememberer in a very different place.

This controversy has also reinforced my own understanding of the way in which certain people lay claim to our Civil War past.  You don’t have to look far for the passions that stir our personal and intellectual connections to the Civil War in reference to a public space or document.  I experience it first hand on this blog in the form of comments and private emails that express bitterness over something I’ve written.  Of course, I do my best to parse out the content from the emotion, and while I am interested in both I give much more attention to the former.  It would be a mistake to judge the emotion as right or wrong, but I do question its legitimacy.  I don’t believe that the emotion attached to people’s Civil War memory today ought to be understood as a moral claim on the historical event in the way that competing memories of 9-11 continue to do so.  The difference for me is the relative remoteness of the rememberer.  I find it difficult to pinpoint the psychological difference between the two examples, but I have a sense of what is going on here.  On the one hand the events of 9-11 are part of our lived history.  It’s a history that for many of us has left a void in the structure of our immediate families; even for those removed from the personal tragedy of the story it continues to give meaning to our lives and to the way we view the nation and rest of the world.  I simply fail to see how such a dynamic holds for descendants of Civil War soldiers (Union and Confederate) and the rest of the general population.  We may feel connected to some aspect of the war, but the overly moralistic tone and claims to an exclusive ownership of the past or even some aspect of the past is in my view completely unjustified. It’s what I understand when I hear: “Get over it.”  Perhaps a better way of putting it is: “Get over yourself.”

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25 comments… add one
  • Craig Aug 24, 2010 @ 10:11

    My interest in the Civil War more or less coincided with 9-11. I visited Stone Mountain in Atlanta by chance less than a month after the towers fell. I didn’t learn until five years later that my great great grandmother’s brother was wounded at Leggett’s Hill in the Battle of Atlanta. Southerners still refer to to it as Bald Hill. My dad’s family were German immigrants who arrived in Wisconsin five years before the Civil War started.

    I suspect the Civil War was an integral part of the family’s identity until around the time when my dad was born in 1927. Between 1917 and 1941 my family’s memory of the Civil War was systematically expunged. Germany had become America’s new favorite enemy. Civil War ancestry was no guarantee of patriotism during, between or even well after the wars against Germany, especially for people with German surnames. My dad went to graduate school a decade after WWII and passed an exam in German as a requirement for his doctorate, though he never took any classes in German. The household in which he was raised was bilingual up until the year his father, an Evangelical minister who preached sermons in both German and English, died in 1932. The last funeral my grandfather officiated was in 1930 for a German-American who had worked for the federal government with the Department of Agriculture as a plant pathologist. The highlight of the deceased[s career had been a trip to Europe in 1914 that involved visits to a a number of botanical gardens in England and Germany. The tour ended in Dresden on the day that England declared war on Germany.

    Officially, the government of the United States was at war with Germany for a total of five years in WWI and WWII combined, but ideologically the war lasted seventy-five years or more. When I was a grad student twenty-five years ago the closest I came to ever receiving a job offer that represented a career opportunity was a tip I got from a German grad student in the linguistics department. He was two years old, living in the bombed out rubble of Hamburg, when the war ended, and he knew of scholars in East Germany who might have been willing to employ an English instructor from the United States. I didn’t pursue it after he pointed out that openly gay applicants for the position might receive special consideration, so the question of defection never arose. It put a new twist for me on the phrase “du musst dein Leben anderen.” While my education never made me employable, it was good preparation for my current hobby, translating Civil War poetry written in German.

    The post on my blog that receives the most traffic is one I wrote about my visit to Atlanta. I don’t get much traffic, probably less than fifty visits a month. The last comment I got was about two months ago, a relative of General Mortimer Leggett,, commander of the brigade that included my great great grandmother’s brother on the day he was wounded in battle. David Leggett said he’d seen the monument in downtown Cleveland, but really knew nothing about his great great great uncle until he read my post. He said he’s planning a trip to Atlanta, sometime soon.

  • Richard Aug 24, 2010 @ 6:01

    I dont think there are many events of this magnitude that were broadcast in real time, creating a collective memory. I was sitting in the Marine Reserve building in Charlotte taking an exam when they locked the doors and said the United States was under attack. Went up front and watched the second plane hit with a young marine.

  • Marianne Davis Aug 24, 2010 @ 3:29


    I wish we were all able to speak about this rather than write, as the written word can so seldom carry the nuance or the compassion we wish to convey.

    Having said that, I must tell you that I was there in Manhattan. I spent over thirty years as a bond trader. Of course it was not only we in the financial markets who were attacked, but I lost several dozen friends and acquaintances. Eventually, I had to chose to attend the funerals only of those who had been in my home. That was eleven in the space of ten days. I think I understand your own loss, and the high emotions in the country, and I know we all recover in our own ways and time.

    Still, I must demur from your own remarks in two ways. Firstly, no American should claim such a stake in the past that we ignore the Constitutional issues involved. Secondly, we have a legitimate and important question of memory here. I confess that I am sickened by “Remember 9/11” bumper stickers. In my admittedly parochial view, if someone was not on site, did not lose someone close, they have only the most inauthentic memory. If they were there, their memory is both indelible and inescapably personal and subjective. My memory is of horror, and running and walking barefoot up Fifth Avenue. The proud defiance of those stickers is for other people. The manufacture of a national memory of 9/11 has been a dangerous phenomenon in my view, and this mosque conflict is just a side effect of that.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2010 @ 3:58

      Thanks for taking the time to write, Marianne. I can’t imagine what that was like to go through.

      Understand that I was not suggesting that we ignore the constitutional questions completely. I was merely pointing out that I didn’t want to deal with that specifically in this post. Of course, it is relevant. I am also sickened by the bumper stickers as well as the license plates that depict the twin towers. At the same time I don’t know how comfortable I am in pointing out a clear line between authentic and manufactured memory of an event. In fact, I am not even convinced that such a distinction exists.

      • Marianne Davis Aug 24, 2010 @ 4:26

        You may be right about memory, and that is an important point. My “eyewitness” memory differs from those of others who were there, as it must because all of our direct experiences differed. But what does that say about the continuing effort to create a shared national consciousness of 9/11? Government and the press united in 1941 to frame the memory of December 7th. This was both to help make sense of the attack and to prepare the people for war. The same thing happened in 2001, and is on-going with few and feeble attempts to educate. There is an orthodoxy about the official memory that is both incomplete and dangerous. In the effort to prepare us for war, our leaders taught us just enough to hate. This is very like Civil War memory — excise a few facts, inject romantic doomed heroes, and the Lost Cause rises.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2010 @ 4:30

          Well said, Marianne, but surely you are not surprised by this. It seems to me that as individuals our memory is shaped primarily as a survival mechanism as opposed to getting at some notion of truth. Is it any surprise that something along the same lines holds for our collective memory?

          • Marianne Davis Aug 24, 2010 @ 4:54

            Then those who claim to be champions of the Constitution might want to start defending it in its entirety. And those who insist this is a Christian nation should remind themselves He said, “the truth shall make you free.” I am unaware of any religious or cultural hero who admonishes us to comfort ourselves with soundbites.
            Now I’m going to finish reading my elitist East Coast newspaper,decide whether I should wash the dogs or just send them out into the rain, and leave you to your day. Go create a coterie of the educated so my children will be in good company.

    • Margaret D. Blough Aug 24, 2010 @ 5:32

      Marianne-Thank you for your wise and moving statement of what is at stake here. It sounds so trite and inadequate to say that I am so sorry for your loss, but there are no words that are adequate, so all I can say is that I’m so sorry for your losses.

  • Boyd Harris Aug 23, 2010 @ 14:24

    Could the “difficult(y) to pinpoint the psychological difference” lie with the differences in the perpetrators? Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 hijackers were not representing a nation but a fanatical strain of Islam. Adding the element of spiritual religion could provide the event with a longevity not seen at other sites of tragedy. The possibility that similar devotees of this radical Islamic view toward the U.S. still exist keeps the memory of 9/11 alive, perhaps even beyond the “lived memory” that you mentioned. While some Japanese may still wish to see the U.S. attacked, their threat to U.S. security is only perceived by the public through the traditional idea of warfare between nations.
    The traumatic experience of 9/11 is emphasized by the personal nature of the attack and attackers. There is little debate as to the hijackers motives, whereas Japanese soldiers (or for that matter Union and Confederate soldiers) present a variety of motives for which historians and the public can interpret their involvement. The difficulty of removing the perception of the hijackers from mainstream Islam or from a particular nation (Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc) is explicitly seen in the ongoing contestation of the landscape.

    • Margaret D. Blough Aug 23, 2010 @ 22:02

      I think the example of the Japanese shows how much time can alter perception. The initial reaction to Americans of Japanese birth or ancestry in the US after Pearl Harbor was blanket, racist, and xenophobic (plus, in the case of California, an excuse for truly spectacular land grabs). We didn’t round up Germans and Italians except for those who met the customary international legal standards for enemy aliens or there was direct proof of efforts to subvert the war effort and put them into concentration camps, even though there was a lot more proven support of Hitler’s Germany by German-Americans (the German-American Bund) than there was for Japan by Japanese-Americans. Ironically, this only happened in the continental US. It did not occur in Hawaii where Japanese-Americans formed 32% of the population (probably because it would have destroyed the Hawaiian economy). Despite this, when the ban on their enlistment was dropped, young men of Japanese descent enlisted in massive numbers, many directly from the camps, in the US Armed Forces, especially into the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team that became the most decorated single U.S. Army unit in WW II (Sen. Daniel Inouye was a soldier in this unit and lost his arm when the 442nd was fighting in Italy and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions as a member of that unit)

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2010 @ 3:55

      Good point, Boyd.

  • Andy Hall Aug 23, 2010 @ 12:24

    Great post, that raises great (and hard) questions.

    One particular thing that I’ve become increasingly aware of, is that a great many of those who bring the most personal emotion, ancestor-hagiography and outright anger into discussions bout the Civil War today — think the League of the South, for example — very often aren’t arguing about the Civil War or the 19th century at all. The Civil War is a convenient proxy for modern-day political issues that have them really torqued — immigration, government involvement in the economy, culture wars — and they’ve chosen to see it all as one long, continuous struggle that their great-great-granddaddies fought with Lee and Hood, and their granddaddies, and so so on down to themselves today. I don’t think I’ve read an ostensibly-Civil-War-focused online discussion among confirmed Southern Heritage™ defenders in a long time that didn’t quickly devolve into a discussion of Obamacare, “anchor babies,” and so on.

    I realize this is only a half-developed thought, but it’s a striking observation to me. I suppose it’s inevitable, given how folks of that sort — those who self-select into lineal-heritage organizations in the first place — tend to project onto their fore-bearers all sorts of motivations and attributes that are based on little or no actual evidence. The defend the Confederacy so vehemently because they’re defending themselves in a deep-down, emotional way.

    • Rob Wick Aug 23, 2010 @ 13:43


      I have to agree wholeheartedly with your point. History has become so politicized (and I have to say from both the left and the right, although the right seems to run further with it) that in many instances it doesn’t seem to be recognizable to me anymore. There have always been people who present a thesis. Then comes the inevitable revisionists and then the neo-revisionists, but in all the time I was in school I never remember anyone complaining that a thesis originated from the left or the right. I had professors who (outside of class) were clearly liberal or conservative, but at no time did either try to indoctrinate any students one way or the other.

      I honestly wonder if our society has lost the ability to hold sane discussions. True, there have always been radicals, but normally a voice of reason rises above the noise and the moderates make the policy. Now whomever shouts the loudest (and promotes the most invective) is declared the “winner”. Boy, I hope I’m wrong.


      • Andy Hall Aug 23, 2010 @ 14:10

        I honestly wonder if our society has lost the ability to hold sane discussions. True, there have always been radicals, but normally a voice of reason rises above the noise and the moderates make the policy. Now whomever shouts the loudest (and promotes the most invective) is declared the “winner”. Boy, I hope I’m wrong.

        I hope so, too.

  • Woodrowfan Aug 23, 2010 @ 12:20

    One important detail, the center is being built by Sufis, who are hated as heretics by the Wahhabis in Al Quida. I suspect that Al Quida has killed far more Sufis than Americans as they’re a common target in Iraq and Pakistan. To object to a Sufi organization building its center because of something done by Wahhabis is a bit like objecting to the Baptists building a YMCA because the Catholics did something awful nearby. The only way to justify it is to roll both groups into one category and say “the Muslims did it and all Muslims are alike.” Well, no. Some Muslims are as opposed to the harsh fundamentalist Islam of al Quida as we are and would make great allies if only the bigots would sit down and shut up.

    To tie this back to the blog, I wonder how many of the “Mosque” opponents sympathize when African-Americans complain about displaying the Confederate flag on public buildings? At least the Confederate flag has a direct relationship to slavery and to the reaction to the Civil Rights movement. That’s more of a connection than this community center has to 9/11.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 23, 2010 @ 11:57

    With Walmart and other zoning cases, there isn’t an Constitutional issue involved.

  • David Rhoads Aug 23, 2010 @ 11:47

    I was just talking to my mother-in-law yesterday about the “Ground Zero Mosque” (she opposes it and I don’t see it as a big deal). She asked me how it was any different than the Wilderness Wal-Mart, which I would rather not see built and against which I spoke at several Orange County Planning Commission meetings. Although several arguments immediately suggested themselves to me, upon a bit of reflection I had to admit that the cases are not all that dissimilar. It’s really only my reactions to the cases that differ.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2010 @ 13:01

      Hi David,

      Let me see if I can take a shot at what I perceive to be a few distinctions. First, the landscape of “Ground Zero” (to include the blocks encompassing the proposed center) is still part of a lived history. There is no concern that the event in question runs the risk of being forgotten; rather, the question is how to remember it. As I see it the debate about Civil War battlefields is part of a larger question of the place of the Civil War in our broader national memory. The loss of battlefields is a reflection of its place in our memory and the possibility that it will be forgotten.

      I also get the sense that interested parties, including the immediate families of the victims, claim to speak for those who were lost. We need to tread very carefully here. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been tempted to appeal to the memory of the my cousin as a way to help make my own point. Luckily, I remember that as close as we were I cannot speak for her as to how the ground itself ought to be commemorated. My guess is that most of the immediate families of the victims cannot claim this knowledge. You can correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t get the sense that preservation activists claim to speak for the Civil War generation. They are speaking primarily about the importance that we (here and now) ought to attach to certain landscapes because of what happened there and its importance to the rest of our history. As far as I am concerned no one today ought to claim to speak for the Civil War generation and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for an ancestor who lived through it. As I said before in a previous post, most of us have no idea what an ancestor might think about anything happening today and to claim to do so is disingenuous. Let me know what you think.

      • Jonathan Dresner Aug 23, 2010 @ 15:23

        There’s a question of place which is relevant, too. Changing a damaged storefront into a community center doesn’t dramatically alter the physical space (which isn’t really necessary to understand the event) in the same way that converting undeveloped land into a major shopping center would.

      • David Rhoads Aug 23, 2010 @ 16:42

        Certainly there are distinctions, proximity in time to the remembered events being the most obvious and most important. But I guess what I’m getting at is that the arguments made by those groups opposing the “Ground Zero Mosque” are pretty much the same kinds of arguments made by the groups opposing the Wilderness Wal-Mart, so I had a moment of cognitive dissonance in the conversation with my mother-in-law as I tried to reconcile the fact that I come down simultaneously on opposite sides of what is in many ways the same question.

        Clearly, the people who would like to build an Islamic center on private property near Ground Zero have every right to do so as long as they comply with the local codes and ordinances. So too, the developers who want to build the Wal-Mart on private property near the Wilderness portion of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park have every right to do so as long as they comply with the local codes and ordinances. Opposition to either project–having really no leg to stand on from a legal point of view–tends to focus primarily, though by no means exclusively, on convincing people of the inappropriateness of the location in question.

        It’s all mixed up, of course, with strong emotions, political and/or ideological convictions, and many other motivating factors. In my own case, I have no great love for Wal-Mart in general and frankly don’t want one anywhere in Orange County, but I didn’t talk about that during my two 3-minute statements before the Planning Commission. As it turned out, though, worries about the viewshed from Ellwood and increased traffic through the battlefield didn’t carry much weight when it came to granting a special use permit for a privately owned, commercial-zoned parcel in a designated development area of tax-revenue-strapped Orange County.

        As to claiming to speak for the dead–which I agree we cannot do–no doubt there is more of that in relation to the events of September 11, 2001, simply because they happened so recently. But there were a few such invocations in the debate over the Wilderness Wal-Mart as well. Interestingly, it wasn’t so much on the preservationist side of the issue, although that side did tend to emphasize casualty counts and bloodshed as they made the case for “hallowed ground”; rather, it was from some of the Wal-Mart supporters that I heard statements along the lines of “my ancestors didn’t fight in that war to have their sacrifices ignored by government/outsiders trampling on the rights of private property owners.”

  • Rob Wick Aug 23, 2010 @ 11:06

    Good piece Kevin.

    My biggest problem with the whole Cordoba Center situation is that I find myself saying “bigot” and “prejudice” when I know there are people who sincerely believe that building the center is wrong and who have no problem with Muslims, American or otherwise. That Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich get most of the air time shouldn’t blind us to the idea that there are people who aren’t idiots (I’m sorry, but there is no other word for Palin and Gingrich) who feel strongly about this and who have no hatred in their hearts. I have no problem with the building of the center and think it would be a step in the right direction and would show Bin Laden and others that while you may kill Americans or those of other nationalities, you can never kill the freedom or extinguish the spirit which allows religions of all stripes to practice freely (which I think angers Bin Laden more than just about anything else here).

    Kevin, as someone who lost a family member there, let me ask you this. Should the wishes of family members carry more weight than others? Does losing a loved one somehow give those people more of a say?

    I ask this because of the point you make about those who are far removed from the questions of the Civil War. My great-grandfather rode with Sherman on the March to the Sea and as far as I can tell fought just as gallantly as anyone else and lived to tell about it. But let’s say for the sake of argument that he was killed. Should that give me any more say about a monument to his regiment, or if someone wanted to build a monument to the regiment from which soldiers killed him? Most would say no, because no matter that he was my great-grandfather, I didn’t fight. I would have to agree with that.

    What happens 50 or 100 years from now when the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of those who were killed on 9-11 decide they don’t like something that’s there today or, better yet, want to erect a monument to further peace and understanding between “radical Islam” and America? Will people not connected to it by the loss of a family member have any say? Should it matter?

    I have no idea how to answer those questions. I wish I did.


    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2010 @ 11:13

      Hi Rob,

      I am going to give your question some thought, but for now I just want to point out that I don’t want this post to become a sounding board for opinions on the Cordoba Institute. Thanks for the question, Rob.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2010 @ 11:46


      Your question is a good one, but very difficult to answer. In fact, I doubt there are any answers in the strict sense. I am not surprised that the immediate families have had a certain amount of influence on plans for “ground zero”, but that may have to do with the fact that they organized themselves for just such a purpose. In other words, they represent an important interest group and one that has an obvious claim on the shape of the landscape. Their loss speaks volumes. However, while I believe that I have a unique perspective because of the loss of my cousin I don’t know if I ought to have any more influence on what happens to the landscape as anyone else. I certainly have strong beliefs about the site and this particular issue because of the loss of my cousin. I don’t have children, but if I did I suspect that they would not be particularly connected to this event. Unless we are talking about the immediate families the next generation will read about 9-11 as any other event in their history books. My students today have no direct memory of the event other than a vague recollection from when they were very young. They are detached from the emotions of that particular day. Proximity to the site must also play a role. For New Yorkers it’s part of their neighborhood and immediate surrounding. It’s almost impossible to separate the landscape of the towers from the rest of Manhattan and maybe even the rest of New York City. At the same time NYC is in constant flux both in terms of the structures as well as its residents. At some point a new building will be constructed and it will be accepted as a permanent structure by subsequent generations.

      • Margaret D. Blough Aug 23, 2010 @ 21:44

        Kevin-Please accept my sympathy for the horrific loss that you and your family sustained. Having said that, and acknowledging the fact that the current uproar involves NYC and that losing a loved one in the attack on the WTC would focus anyone’s attention there, please do not lose sight of the fact that two other locations were involved. In the case of the Pentagon, the fact that the building stood, except for the immediate impact area, and went back to functioning pretty soon plus the fact that national security concerns limited access and information played a significant role in it fading into the background except for the survivors and the loved ones of those who were murdered. Flight 93 was flown into the ground 18.52 miles by road (the actual distance is probably shorter; there are very few straight roads in Somerset County, PA) from my family home. My brother was at Indian Lake which is much closer and one of the road crews he supervised was only a mile from the crash site. It was a miracle that no one on the ground died. A matter of seconds kept it from taking out a school that was in session.

        I still remember when they finally got cameras to the crash site, seeing the video on tv. While I can’t say i saw that particular portion of hill, I certainly grew up looking at its nearby neighbors. That’s when it really hit me. NYC and DC were clearly targets of any enemy of the US, but rural Somerset County Pennsylvania had been in serious contention for the middle of nowhere. If it weren’t for a turnpike stop legendary for its snowfall, no one would ever have heard of the place, and people pretty much liked it like that and, even in Somerset County terms, Shanksville, Stonycreek Township was isolated and out of the way (I think it was the only school that my high school in a neighboring township played in sports that actually was smaller than we were). If it could happen there, there was really no place that was safe; there was no sanctuary. In addition, the dead and wounded of the 1993 WTC bombing have also decried being forgotten, so that’s another issue of memory.

        I have been impressed and proud of the dignity, courtesy and compassion that the people of Shanksville have shown to visitors, especially to family members, after having history literally drop from the sky on them. From what I have read, the fights over content, etc. have been bitter in the planning of the Flight 93 memorial. One plan, already approved, had to be revised because some family members decided that a grove of trees planted in an ark was a crescent and thus a tribute to Islam.

        I believe that family members deserve a prominent voice in planning and input of all of the memorials and plans for the area but I think to give them a veto would be disastrous.

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