Some questions presented by the chairs: Is one supposed to sit in them? If so, does one sit to be close to the dead, to be in their place and assume their perspective? Does one sit in judgment, vigilance, serenity, longing? Does one sit in protest, as at a sit-in, against acts of terrorism and anarchy? Does one sit with America? And if one does not sit--and no one here, not a single visitor to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, makes a move to do so--then is it the chairs that do the sitting? Is theirs the seat of government, power? Are they "musical" chairs (the tall backs look like tuning forks)? Do they suggest that anyone could be in any chair at any time? Do they represent the normal and unthinkable at once--people at work, going through their routines, sitting at their desks, in chairs?
None of these questions are explicit, much less answered, which is the whole idea of the chairs, of the memorial, of modern memorials in general. As America anticipates the first Memorial Day of the new century, the country's most recent projects to honor the dead are becoming ways to understand itself. In the past, memorials in America, like those of prior civilizations, tended to be stone-made celebrations with simple purposes--to inspire, consecrate and glorify in the name of national stability and grand prospects. History was portrayed as success. Grant's Tomb, the men on horseback, the male and female figures representing vices and virtues--nothing was intended to make one think or feel in complicated terms. With the recent changes--Oklahoma City is but one example--comes a willingness to see history as a problem.
The 168 bronze-and-glass chairs honoring the 168 people killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, constitute the main component of the memorial, which opened last month. They are positioned in rows that correspond to the floors of the building where the victims were when the bomb exploded. That accounts for the smaller chairs in the second row; the day-care center was on the second floor. Five chairs off to the side, west of the others, are for those who died outside the building. They are positioned on a slight rise leading to a scarred wall--all that is left standing of the building--and look down to a long black reflecting pool, three-quarters of an inch deep and flush against the surrounding granite pathway of stones salvaged from the rubble. They have the warm, pinto colors of the Southwest.
On the far side of the pool stand fledgling trees, the "Rescuers' Orchard," and a magnificent "Survivor Tree," for those who lived through the blast and for the act of survival itself. Scorched and stripped of leaves by the bombing, it now shimmers with a rich green. The memorial is framed by two massive bronze entrance gates: the 9:01 Gate and the 9:03 Gate, the lettering done like a digital clock. The minutes signify the times just before and after the explosion. The hour of 9:02 is represented by the chairs.