Ground Zero! – Is 9/11 a symbol for Western culture?

Ground Zero, New York City. October 26, 2001. Photo by Rob Sheridan

By Peter Corney

In the 2004 edition of his brilliant and provocative book The Wreck of Western Culture –Humanism Revisited, John Carroll has added a last chapter on the significance of 9/11 and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

He argues insightfully that the attack on the World Trade center in New York has deep symbolic significance for western culture. He makes the acute observation that Osama Bin Laden did not target the Vatican, Westminster Abbey, Washington Cathedral or some other religious symbol of Western culture but the city that is home to the ‘persuaders’ of Madison Avenue, to Wall Street and the building that housed the bond traders, bankers and money manipulators at the heart of Western capitalism. New York has come to symbolize many things with its ethnic diversity and rich cultural life, its art galleries, theaters and vibrant music scene. But as they daily ring the bells at the NY Stock exchange it has also come to symbolize the real heart and soul of contemporary Western culture today – money and materialism.  Bin Laden attacked and successfully destroyed a most potent icon of this, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Bin Laden correctly judged what has now become the soul of Western culture, what it’s real metaphysical core is – Mammon. This is what has replaced its Christian foundation, lost as a result of the impact of the secular humanism that grew out of the enlightenment. (1) Having lost its faith the West is now vulnerable to those who are unafraid to die for theirs.

The towers of the World Trade Centre are being replaced and once again will house the Bond Traders and the ‘money changers’. But the 2976 who died and the 6000 who were injured are not to be remembered with a memorial that reflects the West’s Christian foundation, such as a cross as in many of our past war memorials, but an International Freedom Center, although apparently this idea may now be abandoned as a result of controversy about its meaning and purpose. But what is the nature of the freedom that might be symbolized in this building? Is it the freedoms and rights expressed in the US Constitution, or the freedom of the individual from all moral restraint, the freedom that has all but destroyed the best in the West? Carroll wryly quotes the Janis Joplin song “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose..!” (2)

There are also two reflective water pools as part of the new center. Their dark stone walls will bear the names of the dead. These are to “reflect absence”, presumably the absence of those who died. It may also ironically reflect the absence of our spiritual heart, the story that gave Western culture its greatest creative and moral energy. That built the soaring towers of its cathedrals to the glory of God. What will a visitor see as they stare into those pools? Will they see a reflection of our emptiness or will they see people made in the image of God whose glory shines most clearly in the face of Jesus?

God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (3)

In spite of impressive progress with construction it seems that Ground Zero is to continue to be surrounded with controversy. Now, in a strange twist, that ironically brings into sharp focus the real tension in all this, there is a plan to build a $A.123 million Islamic center with a Mosque and “Interfaith Center” just two blocks from Ground Zero. The plans have touched off a furious debate in America between those siding with the Constitutional right to freedom of religion and those who feel this is an insensitive affront to those who died at the hands of Islamic extremists. This debate taps into a very sensitive nerve in the US and other Western countries. It is interesting, that to my knowledge, no Christian body has planned to build something as significant near Ground Zero. This tragic site is set to be a controversial symbol for the West for a long time to come.


(1) Carroll J “The Wreck of Western Culture”, pp261-265.Scribe 200

(2) Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”

(3) 2 Cor. 4: 6  NIV

  • Pingback: The Spiritual Ground Zero of the West « Mark Sayers()

  • Peter Corney

    Thanks Mark I am glad you liked the article. Peter C

  • Donald Urquhart

    From what I understand, there already are several Christian churches in the area around ground zero, along with quite a number of other businesses. The Islamic mosque would not even be within sight of the area, unlike several bars and other dubious businesses. Furthermore, while money may have become the heart and soul of Western culture, there’s not much anyone can do about it from a legislative standpoint. You can’t make a law that says people must accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. All that has ever achieved has been massive amounts of hypocrisy. Only through the kindness of God are people converted.

    Donald from Rapid Weight Loss

  • John

    Hi, I am from Melbourne.

    Yes Ground Zero! is a symbol which encapsulates the state of Western “culture”- but not for the reasons you propose.

    Please find a completely different response to Sept 11 via this open Letter. it was originally written in response to the Kosovo crisis – at the request of a high ranking UNHCR diplomat. It was then reworked in response to Sept 11.

    The themes of this essay were later extended with the publication of a remarkable book which is introduced here:

    Plus 4 related essays on the historical and cultural roots of the current crisis. Right Life & the “Culture” of Death The Realization of the Beautiful The Taboo – our entire “culture” is based on this taboo.

  • Ontario Secondary School

    just two blocks from Ground Zero. Imaging The plans have touched off a furious debate!