A steel cross-beam survives the devastation of 9/11, becoming a symbol of hope for many.. and yet another reason to fight over the role of religion in the public square. It is a piece of steel that happens to echo a shape that has, over the last 2000 years, become the principal symbol of Christianity: a cross. Understandably, in the weeks that followed 9/11, this unscathed fragment became the repository of intense sadness and an equally intense hunger for hope. Removed to a churchyard, the piece of steel shed whatever ecumenical appeal it had held so that, years later, it returns to Ground Zero no longer as a piece of surviving steel but as an exclusively Christian symbol — hence the ruckus and the efforts to reclassify it as historic artifact. So back and forth it goes across semantic and conceptual borders when, in truth, it belongs to all of these at the same time.
On September 11, 2001, I was among the hundreds standing on rooftops of apartment buildings in Brooklyn, just across the river from Manhattan. Against the bright blue sky a column of smoke rose and arched toward us, while all around the air was flecked with bright, white flashes: sheets of paper floating and flitting, reflecting sunlight as they twirled in the wind. A small piece of paper drifted down and fell at my feet. It was a scrap, vaguely leaf-shaped and only slightly bigger than the pad of my thumb. It was part of a book with text that included the words ‘India’ and ‘Burma.’ At the time I was studying art from those countries. Intrigued I turned the scrap of paper over and found myself looking at the black and white reproduction of a stone buddha head. And I felt hope. Everything that this figure represents can survive: compassion, love, man’s capacity to transcend false divisions and glimpse selflessness — all this can live through the hell of hatred, all this can survive murder.
I imagine this is the same hope that filled the worker who stumbled upon the fragment of steel rising up, in the form of a cross, from the smoking rubble. It is an object. It is a symbol of religion. It is the central icon of a particular set of beliefs. It is an artifact of a particular time and place. It is a reminder of hope in the wake of a terrorist attack. Just like the Buddha head that fell at my feet on a rooftop in Brooklyn.