The Flight 93 Memorial
The design of the Flight 93 memorial is being criticized for resembling a Red Islamic Crescent. Michelle Malkin, Real Clear Politics and Little Green Footballs point out the uncanny similarity. One poster at the FreeRepublic claimed that the "Crescent of Embrace", the principal visual feature consisting of a semicircle of red maple trees enfolding a central space, was oriented toward Mecca.
According to this site, the latitude/longitude coordinates of Mecca are 21.4234, 39.8262 and the coordinates of the Flight 93 crash site are 40.052, -78.8963. Using the calculator from this site, I determined that the azimuth between the two points is 124.80°.
Next I went to the Flight 93 National Memorial website and found the biggest overhead view of the memorial I could find with north oriented up. I measured the distance from tip-to-tip of the crescent and came up with 64px east-west and 90px north-south. The arctangent of 64/90 is the angle between north and a line drawn between the tips, which works out to 35.42°. Adding 90° to this angle gives the direction the crescent faces as 125.42°. Conclusion: the crescent points towards Mecca with an error of 0.62°, or 0.17%.
I had my doubts, so I decided to check things for myself. The Flight 93 Memorial Site has a downloadable PDF map of the winning design, which I duly downloaded. The legend at the bottom of the map specifies it is oriented North, whether true or magnetic is not stipulated. (Magnetic declination is between 6 and 9 degrees W.) Drawing a line connecting the tips of the crescent and drawing a perpendicular, you can see which which way it "opens". Using a protractor, I found the crescent opens between 230 and 240 (southwest) degrees, or taking the reciprocal, between 50 and 60 (northeast). You are invited to do this yourselves and verify the result.
Next I wanted to know if the coordinates given by the FreeRepublic poster really pointed to the Flight 93 crash site and Mecca. The best way to do this is to convert the decimal lat/long coordinates into DMS using a calculator provided by the FCC. The results are given below, but you can do it yourself.
|Flight 93 crash||40.052||-78.8963||40° 3' 7.20"||78° 53' 46.68"|
|Mecca||21.4234||39.8262||21° 25' 24.24"||39° 49' 34.32"|
Then next step was to stick these coordinates into Keyhole 2 LT, and both coordinates check out. Keyhole took me to the site with the characteristic two hills and ridge pointing northeast shown in the Flight 93 Memorial winning design. (Keyhole users, tilt the map if you have trouble distinguishing the features.) The coordinates for Mecca likewise go to "Makkah" in Saudi Arabia. Both sets of coordinates seem valid.
I tried to follow the FreeRepublic poster's calculations for bearing but found them obtuse. I could never come up with an azimuth of 124.80 degrees. So I went to two sites to independently calculate the bearing from the Flight 93 crash site to Mecca. You can go to the Marine Great Circle Calculator or WhereAreWe?. Both these sites accept the coordinates of points A and B and calculate the true bearing to get from A to B. Both give a result of 55 degrees true, or its reciprocal 235. I can tell you that my jaw fell open. The bearing given by both Great Circle Calculators corresponded near enough to the measured opening of the Crescent from the PDF map. (The reader should do this for himself).
Now it could have been coincidence. I went to architect Nelson Byrd Woltz's website and examined his portfolio. Many of his previous works emphasize the semicircular or crescent motif. For example, the Westminster Presbyterian Church Memorial Garden, Watercolor Park, Doris Duke Center and North Carolina Arboretum all seem to incorporate this semicircular theme. That brought me right back to the Flight 93 Memorial Site. If you look at the video provided, you'll see that the orientation of the "Crescent of Embrace" is determined, or at least very strongly suggested by the contours of the ground. (The PDF map shows the same thing). The contours run right through the opening of the crescent. Unless you wanted the park visitors to climb up and down contour lines the opening was exactly where it had to be. So the simplest explanation it seems to me, is that the orientation of the Crescent of Embrace is coincidental.
But what a coincidence! Memorials are symbols above all and it may be inappropriate to commemorate Flight 93 with a Red Crescent facing Mecca.
I am reminded of all those "Freudian" symbols that everyone suddenly noticed in High School, or about calculations showing the Great Pyramid had this or that occult meaning. Looking at the architect's portfolio and the topography it was better than even odds he was going to come up with a semicircle somewhere and if you allowed for twenty degree arcs as the limit of suggestion, there was a 1 in 9 chance of an accidental orientation to Mecca because any azimuth has a reciprocal.
But memorials are what we perceive them to be; they rarely have an intrinsic value. They "remind" us of things, and it so happened that a design which was probably innocently conceived triggered certain unfortunate associations. Symbols are powerful and dangerous to the unwitting. During the Stalin era, one man was sent to the Gulag because he hung his hat over Stalin's picture. It didn't matter that he was blind. It was the symbolism of his act that counted then. Perhaps years from today no will object to Red Crescents displayed in conjunction with the victims of September 11, just as someday people may remember that Swastikas were widely employed as ancient religious symbols. One day, but probably not in 2005.