I posted a week or so back on the two Flight 93 memorials – one actual, one in plan – in Shanksville, PA. In remembering so much sadness in one site, everything is at stake. This is only more urgent when we consider that this is our memorial, a national site of memory. And so The Weekly Standard’s headline was right to propose this statement, which is then the question answered by the article: “The Memorials We Deserve.”
A few thoughts on the last term in this headline. What does it mean to seat the question in matters of desert? Who is the “we” of this deserving? “To deserve something” – the question of “deserts” – invokes the language of justice. On first glance, that’s a peculiar thing to attach to a memorial, yet just a few thoughts make it all completely appropriate. Justice signifies a lot of things, but first amongst them – and perhaps fundamental to all – is desert. Whether it is justice in a courtroom or justice in interpersonal dramas, someone “gets justice” when s/he gets what s/he deserves. A simple equation, really. Sure, the real meaning is in the details, as when you wonder if revenge is a proper form of desert or what boundaries might operate within the formulation of deserts, but, in the end, it comes back to a proper response to the kind of harm done. Just deserts.
This gets really complicated when we turn our attention to memorials. The very term “justice” in the U.S. context leads us habitually to policing and imprisonment; justice is really due the perpetrators of the crime, etc. I’m sad to see that this is what’s become of such a noble term as “justice.” I mean, really, there have been some beautiful things said about justice. Policing? Sigh. What about dudes like King and Gandhi…there is the justice of the human, to deserve recognition, inclusion, life. And so on. It ain’t always about police and prisons.
But to say we “deserve” this or that memorial seizes upon another moment of justice. A better moment of justice, for sure. Memorials respond to some sort of terrible violence. After that violence, we owe something to someone. There is a loss with which we have to reckon in a memorial object or space. What is that loss? To whom is something owed? To where do we turn in thinking about just deserts in and as memory work?
There’s an obvious first “to whom”: the victims 11 September 2001. But who are the victims? They are easy enough to identify, on first glance. They are the dead. So, they have only an imagined and ghostly claim on us, something obviously difficult to discern. It is difficult to discern what the dead ask of us because the dead speak to and through our affects, our mourning, even our melancholy – and all of those are intertwined with a personal story and, often, an ideological core. If the victims are the dead, then, in strange twist, the victims are all of us who register them in our memory. The dead depend on us. That’s an enormous – and at once glorious and terrifying – burden and responsibility.
Another set of victims, perhaps not so distinguishable from the “us” in whom memory of the dead is registered, are the survivors of the event. But “survivors” are hard to name with limits. Do we mean only families of the dead? Or do we extend to friends? To the community of the dead, families, and friends? To the community of Shanksville, PA? To all of us terrified by the events of 11 September 2001? To the state itself, which was sent into a spasm of war-making and civil-liberties stripping? To so much of the world blown apart by this war-making? Not an easy category, these “survivors.” Perhaps the answer is really just “all of the above.”
I’m inclined to go with “all of the above,” with the qualification that all of we who are survivors of a national violent act submit our desires to those of the dead. The ones who actually died. And that changes everything, because the center becomes those who cannot speak. A memorial deserved by the dead – a just memorial, as it were – must refrain from speaking or saying too much. Especially when that speaking or saying reassembles an utterly singular event into an explanatory, even instrumental story. You know, making the event useful for some other end. Not good…not just. The dead deserve better.
Here, we get back to one of my central points in a previous post: religious icons own the memorial site in ways both personally invasive and conceptually inappropriate. I did, however, overstate the case in my first post with regard to Christian symbols; Jonathan Last, the article’s author, has passed along a reminder to me that a diversity of religious symbols adorn the improvised memorial site. (See his relevant remarks from The Wall Street Journal.) That doesn’t quite change my point, but it does importantly qualify my rhetorical twist on the matter. Then again, the perceived Islamic symbol in the original federal site – the “Crescent of Embrace” – was changed because of its apparently inappropriate religiosity. Interesting how we fudge on questions of religious symbolism, no? Either way, religious symbols talk too much. And the secular version of the same, what we call “patriotism,” talks too much, clouds the interests of the dead with our interests (if this version of patriotism is in fact our interest, which, for many of us, it is not). Consider this picture from the improvised site, the site Last lauds as more properly attentive to the heroic:
The blend of religiosity and patriotism is everywhere, of course, and would, by many traditions, be plainly blasphemous. The cluster of angels in the bottom left corner are painted as U.S. flags and the crucifix follows from the U.S. flag, then Pennsylvania flag. One can wonder also about the placing of “93” in the blue of the U.S. flag in the right-center of the page – namely, how that sort of placement is compatible with the alleged sanctity of the flag. Strange. My point, really, is that all of this is just too much noise.
So, back to my question: do we deserve this kind of memorial, where, at best, we can hope to have a completely conflictual space of religiosity and patriotism, without settling on an iconology and hoping the passersby provide a diversity welcoming of all who feel the pain of 11 September 2001? Again, it is all about the “we.” Last claims that we need to remember those on Flight 93 as “heroes.” OK, I get that, that’s not so strange. A handful of people, maybe more, chose their own death to that of many others. It was really very heroic. But the idea of hero is just too easily subsumed under wider rubrics of nationalism and stories (usually religious) of redemption. What right do we, the living, have to lay that kind of story over the lost bodies of 11 September 2001? Is it possible to think about heroic acts without all of that baggage? Very important, I think, because memorials ask neither for forgiveness nor offer apology. Memorials stand in for the dead, for the sake of both the dead and the living. The dead are at special risk because of their silence; we speak for them in memorials, which means a very special kind of ethics burdens the living.
Again, then, I come back to the open space of contemplation that defines the government-sponsored site. Free of the often obscene interventions of patriotic and religious language, we, the visitors, are free to contemplate how we make sense of a heroism few, if any of us, can imagine. I’d venture this: such space gives the dead their just deserts. Open space gives the dead what they deserve by simultaneously giving us what we deserve, which is the very little of a place to contemplate and think about what the dead say to us – even what they might ask of us. An open space that is quiet. A silence that is not instrumental, not used for something, and so of highest usefulness: remembering what is painful.