By Timothy P. Whalen

The urge to destroy cultural icons for political and symbolic reasons has been with humankind for millennia. When we at the GCI dedicated our previous issue of Conservation (vol. 16, no. 2) to the topic of the destruction of cultural heritage, the catalyst was the willful annihilation in March 2001 of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Since the publication of that newsletter, the toppling of the colossal fifth-century religious images has receded from memory in the wake of the incomprehensible terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people—individuals of many different nationalities and many different faiths. We mourn their loss.

The attacks of September 11 intentionally targeted iconic buildings of the American 20th century, severely damaging the Pentagon and completely eradicating the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The Pentagon is a symbol of United States military power, as well as a National Historic Landmark. The World Trade Center, while not a designated historic landmark of any kind, was nevertheless a symbol of the power of the American economy, and it had become for the residents of New York—and for many of its numerous visitors—a kind of visual touchstone, visible from the scattered corners of this unique American city.

The Pentagon will be repaired and will retain its status as an American icon. And already there is discussion of what to do in lower Manhattan after the seven-story piles of rubble and debris are barged away and the site emptied of the physical remains of the attack. Prominent architects and business leaders argue for the rebuilding of the site, perhaps with a structure that is just as symbolic of industry, capitalism, and commerce as were the Towers. Others have called for the acreage to be left open as a park, and for its dedication as a monument or memorial to the thousands who died there, and through whose deaths it has become a burial ground and a sacred place. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has suggested that a fragment of one of the towers should be preserved, citing Coventry, Berlin, and Hiroshima as precedents. These decisions lie in the future, and it is hoped that they will be made with due deliberation and thought and with rational discourse and debate.

I wrote four months ago that we need to try to understand what underlies the desire to destroy monuments and icons of shared cultural heritage. I still believe that. I also continue to believe in the profound value of conserving cultural heritage, particularly when it serves to increase a universal appreciation of the diversity of human creativity—and of how, ultimately, that creativity unites us. Indeed, to the extent that conservation strengthens the bonds among people, it works toward a future in which such acts against humanity and culture as we witnessed in September are, universally, unthinkable.