"A Time for Remembrance"
The Baltimore Sun
September 5, 2006
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and concentration camp survivor, has spent most of his 77 years gazing in a rearview mirror, pondering the wherefores and the whys of war and the Holocaust.
"I believe in memory," he said shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. "To me, memory is a dimension without which I could not go on living."Wiesel was in New York City when the wounded World Trade Center towers heaved and sighed, then collapsed into rubble. Doomed people held hands and stepped off window ledges into space. Lower Manhattan reeked of death, of the Apocalypse. The terrorist attack, he says now, was "a great, singular moment in American history and world history."
Yet he won't be keeping a close eye on the Sept. 11 commemorations. Better to let passing time massage that tragedy, just as rushing water smooths stones in a river bed, as wind sculpts a rugged landscape.
"It's only five years. Most of the people who were there are still alive. It's impossible not to remember," he explains. "The danger is when people speak about it, but don't stop before speaking. There's no thought. It doesn't come from the depths of memory."
No one has published a handbook for coping with calamity on a grand scale. How do the aggrieved make sense of the senseless? What words and gestures do justice when the dead are piled so high? Where's the line separating sentiment from sensationalism?
Conflicting emotions met conflicting obligations in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The brain argues for reflection and restraint. The heart hungers for action and immediacy. Do something. But do it right.
And, never forget.
Memory, Wiesel once observed, has "its own secret melody, its own architecture and its own limitations." That's the voice of older-generation reason, from someone who's a stranger to the Internet, picture phones and podcasts.
Amy Weinstein, an associate curator at the New York Historical Society, is younger and, therefore, perhaps inclined to embrace the legacy of Sept. 11 with more open arms.
"I think it's the telescoping of time," she says of the impending fifth-anniversary observances. "Our perceptions of time are very different now."
The New York Historical Society hasn't shied away from Sept. 11. It already has presented 15 related exhibitions. The latest - and "most unusual" acquisition says Weinstein - (Elegy in the Dust) features sweaters, tank tops and jeans removed from a downtown storefront that had become a makeshift memorial. Still covered with World Trade Center ash, the items are being displayed in a 12-foot-high, Plexiglas diorama.
Across the nation, Americans are preparing to publicly acknowledge Sept. 11 as never before. Some events will achieve perfect-pitch solemnity. Others may seem as overblown and contrived as a Super Bowl halftime extravaganza. But memory must be served.
There will be seminars, communal prayers and choirs. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki are scheduled to preside over a ceremony at Ground Zero that includes the annual reading of all 2,749 names of World Trade Center victims.
There will be a memorial softball game between police and firefighters in Escondido, Calif. "Flags of Remembrance" will fly outside the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Omaha, Neb. Bayonne, N.J., will dedicate its new Sept. 11 monument. A nine-day Torches Across America 9-11 Memorial Motorcycle Ride ends in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 slammed into the ground. A company is hawking a 2001-2006 World Trade Center commemorative coin ($29.95) that has pop-up Twin Towers.
The media, of course, will be obliged to resurrect those familiar, embedded-in-the-brain images. Again, photos of firefighters climbing smoky staircases to oblivion and photos of firefighters planting their flag at Ground Zero. Again, video of that plane plunging into Tower 2 like a knife straight to the heart.
For the insatiable it can be deja vu all over again: CNN.com's Pipeline plans to replay the network's original Sept. 11 coverage in real time from 8:30 a.m. to midnight on the anniversary.
But we may be making history as much as marking it. As a rule, turning points in American life have been revisited with surprisingly little fanfare, especially early on. July 4, 1868 - almost five years to the day after the battle of Gettysburg - found President Andrew Johnson issuing a general amnesty for Confederate soldiers. Reconciliation trumped hoopla.
"They marked the battle anniversaries, but they were really local affairs," says Scott Hartwig, supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. "You didn't see any sort of a national observance of the battle till 1888."
Five years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an Associated Press photograph shows about a dozen soldiers saluting as the "shrapnel-torn flag" that had flown that awful day was raised at Hickam Field in Honolulu. The Navy opted to do nothing. As one officer commented in the AP story, "We want to forget - not remember - Pearl Harbor."
French towns strung along the beaches of Normandy held small ceremonies and parades on the fifth anniversary of D-Day, but virtually no Americans showed up. According to the Associated Press, one local lamented, "You sent us millions for the Marshall plan. Couldn't you have sent us at least six GIs for our celebration?"
In June 1949, Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander in Europe-turned-Columbia University president, denied all D-Day interview and speaking requests. He said he saw no useful purpose in recounting his military service or the battle to end all battles. Like Wiesel, Eisenhower sensed the past needs some breathing room. The time wasn't right for taking bows.
About a year later, on May 8, 1950, President Harry S. Truman let the fifth anniversary of V-E Day slide by practically unnoticed. He was busy barnstorming through the Midwest to pump up his new four-point farm policy initiative.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was hailed as a crossing of the media Rubicon. Henceforth, television would rule our lives and public moments. It has. But Nov. 22, 1968, was not a big JFK news day. There was a family church service in Washington and flowers placed at Arlington National Cemetery. A ceremony at Dealey Plaza in Dallas drew about 70 onlookers. President Lyndon Johnson stayed home.
No official observances were planned in Maryland. Toll collectors had abandoned their practice of handing out roses to drivers on John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway. "The roses went too fast, and some people didn't seem to know what they were for," a highway spokesman told The Evening Sun.
Somewhere between roses and real-time Webcasts the process of public memory was transformed. There are still 60 minutes in an hour, still 365 days in a year, but time gallops today. The cement of history cures fast. Maybe too fast.
Round up those usual suspects: an affluent society, a culture of impatience, the media revolution. Historians used to have 25, 50, sometimes 100 years to puff on their pipes and put things in perspective. That sounds so 19th century.
"Nowadays a week after an event, historical analysis starts kicking in," says Douglas Brinkley, a Tulane University historian and author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. "At its best, it's contemporary history. At its worst, it's instant history."
He lives in New Orleans, which just endured a Hurricane Katrina first-anniversary media blitz. He knows of about 15 oral history projects of Katrina survivors in motion. Compare that to World War II: "As late as 1995, nobody had interviewed D-Day veterans."
The hopped-up environment generates its own vicious cycle of compressed-time demands: to cover an event, to analyze it, to memorialize it, to understand it, to produce the first feature film about it. It's a daisy chain of rushed judgments.
"Memory is quite a commodity now," says David Blight, a historian at Yale University who wrote Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. "There's a certain melancholia about all this. There's a certain fear that drives this."
If there is an underlying fear, no doubt much of it is tied to the search for simple answers to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and what lies ahead. Keep in mind that if Sept. 11 had been Pearl Harbor Day, World War II would've been fought and won by now. And Americans would be back playing baseball, making babies and driving big, fat Buicks.
The desperation to connect dots apparently inspired Pataki to read the Gettysburg Address aloud at Ground Zero as part of the tribute on the second anniversary of Sept. 11. It seemed to Blight a clumsy grafting together of history; cut-and-paste patriotism.
"All it demonstrated to me was the paucity of our own emotions," he says. "We fool ourselves in thinking we can actually explain the meaning of this so quickly."
Ironically, President Abraham Lincoln's remarks were made at Gettysburg in November 1863, just four months after the carnage took place. It took decades before the transcendent grace he expressed in just two minutes was fully appreciated, before his simple words achieved immortality. Such is the slow drip of history.
Every monument erected, every commemorative coin minted, every get-Osama bin Laden speech made, every press release distributed by the 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America adds a line to the epic tale of Sept. 11.
The challenge is to untangle those disparate threads and construct a comprehensive, impartial narrative - one that in the collective mind of the nation may someday share shelf space with the Battle of Gettysburg, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Apollo 11 moon landing.
A memorial and a museum are supposed to rise up from the devastation of Ground Zero by September 2009. However, whole chapters of the Sept. 11 saga are still unfolding or waiting to be written. Why did it happen? Where's it leading? Can we avoid a catastrophic collision of faiths, cultures and world views?
Blight's fear is that in short-cutting the winding road of history, by distorting collective memory, we could get the story wrong: "That answer `why?', that's a sacred obligation to me as much as it is to build a memorial."
The first casualty of expediency may be nuance. Thus, Stephen Vicchio, a philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame, intends to have a low-key Sept. 11, starting his classes with a silent prayer. He has read philosopher William James, a proponent of collective consciousness. Shared vision can be acute, but at other times blurred. The fall of 2006 appears to be one of those other times.
"In 1945, it was clear who the enemy was," says Vicchio. "If you had to point to them, you could. I don't think you can do that today. If we could characterize the age in which we live, it's an age of ambiguity. I think that affects our public consciousness."
Beyond the political and historical impact of Sept. 11, is its emotional fallout: that long kite tail of lost and ruined lives.
David Kessler, who co-wrote On Grief and Grieving and Life Lessons with the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, contends there is such a thing as public grief and, furthermore, that it follows the same five stages as personal bereavement: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Mass media knit people together in a such a way that collective mourning has risen to another level of intimacy; witness the public outpouring after the deaths of President Kennedy and Princess Diana. But the flip side of that electronic linkage of souls, says Kessler, is the relatively new phenomenon of collective loss. Watching the Twin Towers crumble on live TV is viscerally worlds apart from reading in a newspaper about the horrors at Gettysburg or listening to a scratchy radio broadcast about the D-Day invasion.
What may seem an unhealthy preoccupation with Sept. 11 is, in Kessler's opinion, a country moving through complex stages of collective grief, lumbering en masse toward acceptance. Complicating that journey is the fact that so many bodies were never recovered, and that some measure of peace of mind died at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and on the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.
Death, however, can be as ambiguous as history or, in this case, intertwined.
"Unlike a war ending, we haven't gone on to more certain times," says Kessler. "When people look for closure, we're not going to get back to normal. We're going to get to a new normal."
The past is never left completely behind, though. It covers us like the World Trade Center dust on those sweaters and jeans at the New York Historical Society.
Wiesel still dreams about his time in the Nazi death camps. But that power of recollection also helps him to look beyond suicide bombers and focus on the "humanity, generosity and kindness" that poured forth from so many corners on Sept. 11. He gave thanks for that gift of wide-angle perspective in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
"Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living," said Wiesel. "It is memory that will save humanity."
This essay won first prize in commentary writing at the 2006 Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild Awards.