MEMORIAL vs. REMEMBRANCE
A Decade after its First Anniversary,
9/11 now prompts newer questions
Sunday, September 16, 2012
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
This past Tuesday- 11 September 2012- was, obviously, the 11th Anniversary of another, earlier Tuesday 11 September: the one all of us who lived through that terrible day (whether we lost co-workers or friends, family or other loved ones-- or [as is my own case] not!) will forever remember as the "9/11". More to the point of this piece, however, this past Tuesday was- by very definition, then- the 10th Anniversary of the first of a now-decade long string of such 9/11 Anniversaries.
I saw, heard and/or read a number of opinions by various and sundry commentators and pundits- both within and without the so-called 'mainstream media'- this past week, all of which suggested that this particular 9/11 Anniversary was, somehow, different from most- if not all- that had come before it: that it was now, somehow, perfectly "OK" for we Americans (along with those from other Nations who might wish to also so remember 9/11) to pause and reflect upon those horrific events 11 years gone by now in our own, respective ways (a notion that struck me as rather odd-- for when [if not also why] was this not, previously, also so "OK"?). As a result, I began to think about just what it might mean to remember something- especially an event of nationwide, as well as global, import (as what happened back on Tuesday 11 September 2001 so clearly was)- in contradistinction to, thereafter, memorializing it for the benefit of those who were not yet born when these very events occurred.
Back in the mid-1980s (in fact: it was the very year 1985, to be exact)- nearly half my lifetime ago as I now type this, by the way- I spent most of a week of vacation time at an inn (a one-time tavern/hostelry of the early Federal period in American History which had been converted into a typical late 20th Century 'Bed & Breakfast') along a State Highway (itself generally following the route of an old "coaching road" of the era during which the original tavern-become-inn was built) in east central Vermont, but a few miles inland from the Connecticut River valley that separates the Green Mountain State from neighboring New Hampshire to its east. While staying there, I drove- one fine, early summer morning- into a nearby town with its (seemingly obligatory) green or "Common" containing its (equally obligatory) monument in memory of those from that town who had fought- and, in all too many case, died- in that American Civil War already some 120 years (at the time I was visiting) in the past.
This town's Civil War Monument was of the usual type seen throughout much of New England to this day: a squat "obelisk" made up of large, rectangular stones topped by the usual (again, seemingly obligatory) Union infantryman- complete with stone rifle and bayonet, his rucksack topped with a rolled up blanket- wearing his "slouch" cap at a rather rakish angle. On the front of this Monument were the names of all the townsmen who would never come back home alive from the battlefields or field hospitals of that war, on its back was the far longer list of names of all those from the town who had served in that War Between the States and survived and, on the sides of the Monument, were the names of all the battles in which the particular Vermont regiment of which all those so listed (those who had come back home alive- no matter how badly maimed- and those who only came home for burial [assuming, of course, that they had not been buried in place on or near these very battlefields]) had once been a part had itself taken part:
Antietam and Fredericksburg; Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and Petersburg--
all names of battlefields already familiar to myself as an admittedly amateur student of American (as well as Global) History throughout most of my own life. My purpose for visiting this particular small Vermont village that long ago day was, however, not to at all revisit its own contribution- or that of my native New England in general- of manpower to that Grand Conflict; rather, it was to visit a used bookstore that was itself also listed- only, in its own case, merely listed within a brochure put out by an association of local antiquarian booksellers.
The bookstore in question was but a short walk down a side street from the Town Common/village green: it was located in a modest two-story wood-frame building that had, so obviously, once been a residence but had since been converted into retail space so close to what passed for "downtown" in this particular place. The interior of the store was typical of many a used bookstore I have been in- both before and since (and I have been in more than a hundred such establishments, the vast majority of them all up and down the Eastern USofA: many of them no longer in existence, these primarily the casualties of the recent explosion in online, Internet-based, "mail order" shopping): on the walls at the end of the aisles created by rows of neatly varnished wooden bookshelves themselves bending under the weight of many a dusty volume were various and sundry reminders of the past (old maps, delineating property lines, of this and neighboring Vermont town[ship]s; fading [and, in some cases, slightly creased] photographs almost a century old even at the time I was there: all of them in glass-fronted wooden frames)-- some of these were, in fact, for sale...
but most of them were not: merely intended to create a strong impression that the owner of this bookstore cared very deeply about old things, including the very books to be found on his bookshelves (a subliminal reminder, too, that he expected the customer to be just as respectful of same as he-- a variant on the old antiquarian retailer's adage: Nice to look at, and nicer to hold; but once you have broken it, consider it SOLD!!!).
One item on the walls, in particular, caught my attention: a yellowing string-bound brochure (one given out to those attending a significant occasion back in the late 19th Century) opened up to two of its pages inside the wooden frame in which it was being preserved. On these visible pages was the "prepared text"- as it were- of the Dedicatory Speech given at the very unveiling of the Civil War Monument on the nearby green (I could not help but notice that the Centennial of this Dedication was only a few years in the future at the time and, indeed, when I spoke to the bookstore owner himself about this [I was purchasing a number of old county-scale atlases and so-called 'automobile Running Guides' from the 19-teens and 1920s covering New England, so the topic of New England- and even more local History- naturally came up in our conversation at the register], I learned that he himself happened to be the Chair of the Committee that was then in the process of coming up with an appropriate program for the 100th Anniversary of this Monument Dedication): the speaker was the Town[ship]'s then-representative in the lower house of the Vermont General Assembly whose own name was in stone on the back of the very Monument being dedicated, as he- too- was among the Civil War veterans from that town...
one passage within that text stayed with me and is most apropos to the topic of this very piece: unfortunately, I am here quoting from memory and- thus- what the gentle reader might see below in italics is, admittedly, at best a paraphrase-- but I will swear that the essence of what I now present below is that of the passage I am now (however inexactly) remembering more than a quarter century later!
With this Monument, or so I recall the State legislator's words, no one- as they might take a leisurely stroll across this green or otherwise go about their daily business on the streets surrounding it- will again have occasion to not reflect upon, as well as honor, the sacrifices these brave men- their names now inscribed in stone- made in defense of this State and the Union to which it belongs.
In other words: the person giving this Dedicatory Speech (himself, presumably, reflecting the sentiments of many- if not most- among his audience) expressed a hope that- from that day on- the people in the town (including townspeople as yet unborn at the time he spoke) would not ever pass by the town's green, or its Civil War Monument, without thinking of those from the town who had so taken up arms in the Union cause but a quarter century before this Dedication.
By the time I was back at the green that day almost a century thereafter (after having made my purchases at that bookstore), it was lunch hour and people were already coming out of the wood-sided buildings now housing, say, attorney's offices and nail salons in order to find something to eat (many of these people were going into the nearby General Store- one that was purposely trying to maintain its 19th Century look as same- to buy sandwiches and soft drinks there). As for myself, I parked myself on a bench on that green not all that far from the Civil War Monument itself and remained there for some 15 minutes or so before getting back into my car and then heading elsewhere.
If anyone was, in fact, "reflect[ing] upon, as well as honor[ing], the sacrifices" of those- both living and dead- listed on that very Monument while, at the same time, "go[ing] about their daily business", *I* certainly could not tell!
No one I saw on the street during all the time I sat there even gave the Monument so much as a glance (the rather few who appeared to be looking- however briefly- in its general direction seemed more as if they were looking at me- as if trying to figure out just who *I* might be [when, of course, I was a complete stranger in town: these people were highly unlikely to ever see me again-- or I them!]). Indeed- as seems to be the case with similar monuments and memorials from so long past in my own "neck of the woods" here in Northern New Jersey- the Monument was just "there": as it had always been there (for it was rather improbable that, in 1985, anyone who might actually remember the Monument's dedication [thus, also remember a time before it ever existed on that green] would have still been alive) and- or so, I assume, it was expected- would be there the next day... and the day after that... and the day after that... and so on.
The point of my having even brought up this experience of mine herein is to well illustrate the point that those who might have lived through such a searing experience (whether directly [in the case of the Civil War veterans from this small Vermont town, on the field of battle itself] or indirectly [the parents, wives or sweethearts of said veterans who had to confront a returning soldier without one of his limbs or, perhaps, had to read a telegram from the Department of War informing them that a veteran had himself already given that which Abraham Lincoln termed- in his Gettysburg Address- "(his) last full measure of devotion"]) do not- in the end- get to decide just how such devotion is, ultimately, remembered. History is, in and of itself, an often cruel determinant of not only what might be recalled by generations on this Earth long after the events themselves-- but also how!
I, of course, have no earthly idea whether or not the one who gave that Dedicatory Speech in this Vermont town towards the end of the 1880s truly believed his own rhetoric of that day: did he most earnestly believe that- once the Monument on the town green had been unveiled- no one would dare walk past said green without at all seriously considering the cost of the Civil War (already nearly a quarter century in the past as he himself spoke his words) to this town? Furthermore, even granted the foregoing, could he honestly think that those living and/or working in that town long after his own passing would come to feel as strongly about the very meaning of the sacrifice of those from the town who had fought in that war (as commemorated in that very Monument) as the generation that had actually witnessed this Monument's dedication?
I have read more than my share (as, admittedly, a layman-- at best, something of an "amateur historian") of American Social History- detailed, at least in some cases, accounts of the manners and morals, habits and thought-patterns, of Americans over the decades and centuries before those in which I myself have lived and yet there is no real way for me to know- beyond any reasonable doubt- whether the hope expressed in that Dedicatory Speech was genuine or, instead, only more that which was expected to be publicly said on just an occasion during the late Victorian era.
But, in the end, none of this really matters because- again, in the end- those who fought in the American Civil War and lived to come home and, eventually, oversee the dedication of monuments to its veterans such as the one in that east central Vermont town had- and continue to have- no control over just how those of us living today (let alone those in future) might appreciate (or not) their own efforts to so memorialize their own experiences and memories.
And it is no different when it comes to the 9/11!
The 9/11 museum at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan is yet to open as I type this- delayed primarily by financial concerns, yes, but also having been delayed (at least somewhat) by an underlying argument over just what it is that this museum is, ultimately, to commemorate: should those who carried out the 9/11 attacks even be mentioned? If so, just what is to be said about them (beyond the mere- and obvious- fact that they were the very terrorists who carried out such horrendous deeds)? Yet, if you don't so mention the 19 hijackers of that day (along with Al Qa'eda itself)- and, especially, if you gloss over (assuming you even mention this in the first place) what might well have actually motivated them to do what they did- just what kind of History is, thereby, being taught in just such a museum in the first place?
At the same time, no one who lost a family member or friend, co-worker or neighbor in the 9/11 attacks (or even, as in my own case, can but merely note that one of those killed in the World Trade Center that day happened to be the son of the owners of one of the drug stores located in the New Jersey town in which I grew up while I was so growing up) much wants their lost loved ones to be even remotely associated with the very terrorists who also died that day (but only while carrying out their nefarious acts)!
Fact is: our very closeness to- if not our own connections with- the events of 9/11 do not really all that allow us to take an altogether objective approach to such issues.
In the main, then, we who were already on this third planet from the Sun back on 11 September 2001 will not get to write the final epitaph re: what happened that day, for we are each far too interested in making sure our own "spin" on those events someday (hopefully?) becomes at least part of what might emerge as the Account... by the same token, none of us will live long enough to even make sure of this!
In many ways, truth be told, those who so casually walked by the Civil War Monument on the village green during lunch hour in that Vermont town back in 1985 had a much more pragmatic approach to the essential meaning of that Monument than those who had actually witnessed its Dedication nearly a century earlier: it's not that those of 1985 (or even now, 17 years thereafter) had, somehow, forgotten the American Civil War had even occurred-- it's just that they were (and are) not dwelling on it in the manner in which those born early enough to have felt that same war as a recent event themselves, evidently, did!
In the volumes I have in my own home library on the History of Europe in particular (not to mention that of Western Civilization or the World in general) published up till- say- 1938, one Napoleon Bonaparte looms quite large as an historical figure... I dare say Napoleon's importance recedes in the wake of one Adolf Hitler in those books I have on the same topic(s) published after World War II!
So it will be- someday (certainly long after I am no longer able to physically type up these pieces of mine for The Green Papers!)- when it comes to future (well in the future, mind you!) remembrances of 9/11: we of our own time simply cannot conceive of (and we certainly do not at all so willingly envision) a day when 'Sept. 11th, 2001' will be but yet another date- albeit an important one- in a Chronology of History to be published in, say, 2101 (whatever the term "publishing" itself might mean come that year)... for, by 2101- so I dare to predict- much else will have happened that might yet make 9/11 the less glaring within History than it currently still is.
Nearly four years ago now, I wrote a piece for this website in which I recounted my own remembrances of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy: in it, I noted that [t]he scene, as I now think about it, at least appears vivid enough, seemingly playing in my own mind as if on film permanently stored in my own memory. It is, indeed, no less now than when I first wrote those words-- yet I cannot expect my own nieces and nephew, all only in the early to mid 20s in age as I type this, to look upon the events of Friday 22 November 1963 (during which none of them were even alive) in the same way *I* might... to them, the JFK Assassination is pretty much but cold type from, say, a high school American History textbook... likewise, my own mother (who still well remembers hearing the radio bulletins about Pearl Harbor while she was attending a friend's birthday party during the early afternoon of Sunday 7 December 1941) cannot really expect me to look upon- or even feel for- that "date that will live in infamy" in the same manner she will until the very day she herself dies.
Again, 9/11 is- and will be- no different!
And what will be the legacy of the events of that day once we who lived through it will no longer be able to directly communicate with those as yet unborn who will look back upon 11 September 2001 the same way I (born in 1956) look back upon 7 December 1941 (or the lunch hour denizens of a Vermont town in 1985 looked back upon- or, for that matter, didn't- the American Civil War commemorated on their own green)?
I happened to be driving up to what I originally thought would merely be a week's vacation in New England on the morning of Tuesday 11 September 2001 (as things turned out, I was- yet unknown to me at the time, of course- backing the car out of my own garage at just about the very moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center's North Tower). All the major events of that morning over the next few hours (the second plane hitting the South Tower; a third plane going into the Pentagon; first one of the World Trade Center Towers, and then the other, collapsing; a fourth plane- so obviously bound for Our Nation's Capital- instead crashing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania; President George W. Bush being shuttled between [secure] air bases in Air Force One until it was safe to return to the White House) came to my knowledge over a car radio as I headed, first, north and, then, east out of the very Metropolitan New York/New Jersey "Tri-State" Region which was (and still is) my home and was one of the two metropolitan areas most directly affected by these events...
my own first "visual" of these events came with a stop for coffee shortly after Noon that day at a diner in eastern New York State not far from the Massachusetts border, thanks to a black-and-white television (with a bent coat hanger in lieu of a telescopic whip antenna) atop the counter tuned to the CBS affiliate in nearby Albany-- I was seeing videotape of lower Manhattan, as seen from atop a building in Midtown, as the South Tower collapsed (the North Tower leaning slightly at a so obviously untenable angle) earlier that morning, a large cloud of dust and debris visibly clawing its way across the lower portion of the island... as I stood there watching that little TV (while waiting for my coffee to go), a young firefighter came in and sat down at the counter for a quick bite to eat: he told the waitresses that he was on his way down to New York City- called in by the chief of the local volunteer fire department- and he wasn't all that happy about this, vehemently complaining that he was being unceremoniously taken away from his job and his family merely in order to handle "their [meaning New York City's] problem"... one can only hope that this young man (he couldn't have been older than his early 20s) very much changed (and I certainly have no evidence that he did not so change) his tune once he was directly confronted with what came to be called "The Pile" at what also came to be called 'Ground Zero' that same evening---
about two hours or so thereafter, I stopped for a late lunch at a small restaurant in one of the Connecticut River valley towns of western Massachusetts: when the waitress asked "How's it going?", one could not help but respond "Fine, considering all that has happened earlier today!"-- to which her own matter-of-fact reply was: "Yeah, I've had quite a rough day here myself"... overhearing her conversations with the other waitresses, it became readily apparent that she was just about to end an 8-hour shift that had begun very early that morning: if she had, in fact, heard about 9/11, it all was- at best- words coming in over a radio speaker (or, perhaps, bits and pieces of conversation among earlier customers overheard by her); it was just as likely she had no real idea what had actually transpired "out there"--
as I left this particular restaurant, I saw someone loading one of the boxes along the sidewalk just outside it dispensing newspapers with 'EXTRA's of the local daily broadsheet: its headline fairly screamed OUR NATION ATTACKED above a full-page color photo of the scene I myself had already seen (again, in black and white) on that small television in the other diner earlier. I hoped that the waitress who had just served me my lunch might also see these same headline (with photo) as she herself left her job for the day and that she, too, would be struck by its significance.
The point here is that- while the legacy of 9/11 is (and, presumably, will be) that of a Nation United- it should not be forgotten that there were certainly many outside the areas most directly impacted upon by the events of that terrible morning who were simply going about their daily business that very afternoon (after all, wasn't I doing the exact same thing by not giving up my own vacation plans?) and for whom the enormity of those terrorist attacks had not yet sunk in (even though they had already, by then, well sunk in with me! [though, to be fair, I had long been familiar with the World Trade Center and its immediately surrounding area-- so what I was hearing on the car radio, even before seeing what I saw on that small TV in the first diner, was so easily already considered in my own mind-- along with the larger political and geopolitical ramifications as more and more information about the source of the 9/11 attacks also filtered in]). Such being the case: who are we to demand that generations yet to come only look back upon Tuesday 11 September 2001 in the way we ourselves now do?
Put another way: who, exactly, gets to decide whether or not it is- or was, or will be- "OK" to remember and/or commemorate 9/11 as we (or, more to the point of this piece, those yet to come) each might best see fit?!