My quest to come to grips with the legacy of 9/11 in this series of posts draws to a close with this one. So far I have been examining the ways in which we remember those of who have died, the different circumstances in which people do die, and the changing ways through which the legacy of those who have fallen in battle have been remembered and forgotten.
I have been reminded of the loss of memory, or at least its diminishment over time through some recent events. First there have been a series of posts about America’s first 9/11, the Battle of Plattsburgh during the War of 1812. For the British, it is not a war they forgot since it never was one they remembered. For America, especially New York, it shows how easily deaths can be forgotten and even victories can vanish.
The past can be resurrected, too. A reconstructed statue/memorial to those who died in World War I has been erected in Brooklyn. The borough in which some now struggle to preserve to the memory of the Battle of Brooklyn at the birth of the country now recalls the “ethnics” of Bedford Stuyvesant who gave their lives in the war to end all wars. The battle for controlling the legacy of that war continues. At the battle of Gallipoli where over 100,000 died, what once launched the birth of the secular state of Turkey has become a triumph by Islamists over infidels. Times change and so do the memories of the past.
So how should 9/11 be remembered on its 13th anniversary? Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in the New York Times Review of Books, suggests: “What has been strikingly absent — perhaps because it’s precisely what takes a longer time to apprehend — is a grander historical vision of the event: why it happened, what its implications are beyond the local and personal or, indeed, national.”
Mendelsohn reveals that on 9/11, he was driving on the West Side Highway along the Hudson River en route to teaching his Greek tragedy class. He mentions one of Western canon’s earliest literary reactions to national catastrophe, “Persians” by Aeschylus. The play was first performed eight years after the devastating Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, best known for the Battle of Thermopylae.
Lamentations for destroyed cities actually far predate coming to grips with that invasion. Already in the third millennium BCE, Mesopotamians lamented the fall of Ur, the city of biblical Abraham, and the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur. I have introduced the concept of the high place at the cosmic center in previous posts with the awareness of the destruction of cities with ziggurats, the ancient Mesopotamian skyscrapers in mind. But the destructions of high places at the cosmic center which have generated the most attention are the two of the temples in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE by the Chaldeans of Babylon, and in 70 CE by Rome. Biblical scholar David Carr, of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, has pursued the topic of “trauma” and how the ancient Judaeans dealt with what had been unimaginable. A building had stood for roughly 350 years and then it was no more. Even by ancient standards, that is a long time for one building to be in continual use..and then it vanished. How did people cope with such a devastating loss that rendered their understanding of the world suspect?
Another biblical scholar, Jacob Wright, Emory University, has contributed to this discussion with two articles (which he sent to me):
“War Commemoration and in the Interpretation of Judges 5:15b-17″ [the Song of Deborah]
“Deborah’s War Memorial: The Composition of Judges 4-5 and the Politics of War Commemoration.”
Readers may note that Emory University is located in Atlanta, the site of the most devastating and thorough destruction of a city on American soil by other Americans. In addition to the impact it had it in its present, it was repeated in the American culture with the release of Gone with the Wind, still the number 1 movie by inflation-adjusted revenue after all these years and soon to be re-released on its 75th anniversary. Even more important is that everyone in America saw the burning of Atlanta in the film when it originally was released. The trauma from decades earlier was made visible in spectacular color just as everyone watched the TV broadcasts in living color of the collapse of the World Trade Towers. Here in New York, we may not recognize or appreciate the trauma which occurred in the Confederacy when a city burned because after all, our side won and they deserved it based on our values. That approach may not work well if you are teaching in Atlanta.
In the second article, Wright cited Baruch Halpern, a third biblical scholar, who rewrote the Song of Deborah by replacing the name of the tribes of Israel with the American states;
Out of New York – their root is in Albany;
After you Rhode Island, among your contingents;
Out of Massachusetts, statesmen came down,
And from Pennsylvania, whose who wield the writer’s pen.
The purpose of these listings was to demonstrate unity, participation, and a shared memory, here in victory but what also could be true of a defeat or trauma as in the phrase, “we are all in this together.” Many Americans have the shared experienced of having witnessed the trauma of the collapse of the World Trade Centers. Indeed, one may gauge the depth of the trauma based on degrees of separation from Ground Zero: were you there? did you see it in person? do you know people who died there or who were there? Do you see, smell, hear, touch, or taste its aftermath from the burning debris or fleeing people? Did you see it on TV?
That number of people who shared in the trauma will decrease in time just as it has for the Holocaust. It is partially to remedy this situation that a traveling 9/11 memorial museum (Note the combination of the two terms) this week visited the Brewster High School in Putnam County. It is the creation of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. He was the off-duty fireman that the City Wonders guide spoke about when I toured the Memorial Plaza (http://www.citywonders.com/en/usa/new-york/new-york-tours/911-memorial-tickets-ground-zero-tours). The story of this person running through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with 60-pounds of gear to save others eventually at the cost of his own life is indeed an inspiring one. The Tower to Tunnel 5K Run and Walk in the memory of Stephen Stiller honors his life. The high school students who toured the mobile memorial museum may have been 3 years old or less when 9/11 occurred. They have no direct memory of the event, of the trauma that is part of their history as Americans.
Our greatest president faced a similar dilemma when he stood at the battlefield in Gettysburg and transformed it in a sacred place in the American Civil Religion. Lincoln did so in part by linking what became the site of the rebirth of America to the birth of America four-score and seven years earlier. He did so part by stating those who stood for the union in the present were joined to those who had stood for the union at its birth. And the place was consecrated, his words were remembered, and Gettysburg became a pilgrimage spot despite its isolation.
The ways in which we humans honor the dead have a certain consistency because we are all human beings. There tend to be physical reminders of some kind such as tombs, statues, or monuments which memorializes the deceased. Certain areas may be set aside as sacred. Processions of some kind may walked, ceremonies of some kind may be held, words of some kind may be spoke or sung or both. All this is what we should be doing for 9/11.
Therefore, I propose the following:
1. A procession be held beginning at the United Nations going across 42nd Street to Times Square then turning south on Broadway ending at Ground Zero.
2. The procession should consist of
– the countries in alphabetical order of the people who died in Osama’s assault on humanity each represented by a flag and a coffin
– the families of those who died
– the police, fire, and first responders
– anyone who wants to join the procession.
3. At Ground Zero, the coffins and flags should be permanently placed around the plaza eventually with a plaque for each country.
4. Each country, the police and fire departments should have a memorial service at the plaza before the flag and coffin of their country.
5. At the conclusion there should be a “Tribute in Light.”
Ground Zero is the cosmic center of the planet for the 21st century. We need a ceremony worthy of it.