A Monument to Work?

There’s an interesting debate brewing in New York City over the design of the World Trade Center memorial.

The original plan calls for the names of the 2,979 victims of the trade center terrorist acts in 1993 and 2001 to be listed at on eight parapets at plaza level–in a random order that architect Michael Arad says reflects the “haphazard brutality of the attacks.”

But the victims’ families aren’t content with that. According to The New York Times, they’re insisting that victims’ names be arranged by the building in which they worked, by their employer or other affiliation, and by floor. Says Edith Lutnick, executive director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund. “You’re addressing what everyone asks: ‘Where did they work? How old were they? What tower were they in?”

I’m not going to try to assess the emotion or the politics driving this argument (though it certainly does sound like the victims’ organizations are throwing their weight around).

But I find it very telling that our instinct is to associate people so closely with their employers and places of work. Not with their communities, not with their families. And not as individuals, as Arad’s design stipulates. No: The firefighters’ union wants its guys identified foremost as firefighters. Thomas S. Johnson, chairman of the executive committee of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, says it’s “nonnegotiable” that his son be listed as an employee of the brokerage firm of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

It’s been observed before that the Trade Center disaster was distinctive as a tragedy set in the workplace. But should that define how we remember its victims? Do our jobs so define us? Do our associations with organizations supercede who we are as individuals?