Ayden, NC –
In the days surrounding Nine-Eleven's tenth anniversary, we'll drag out our tales about The Moment When We Heard. It's natural, just as it was for those who remember Pearl Harbor or President Kennedy's death. It also says something about the self-regarding society we've become that any astonishing event has to be about ME, somehow.
Media is at work in this. Not "The Media," our reflexive scapegoat, but rather the omni-media environment we've lived in for a generation, whose focus is always YOU. So anything that happens is about ME.
This is reflected in our memorial culture. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial turns 30 next year, and it marks the break-up of a unified society. The war was socially divisive, so the memorial honors its dead but no common purpose. It is wonderfully participatory: Touch the names, leave mementos. But it's about private mourning, not public affirmation.
Later efforts have stumbled trying to do the same thing. The Oklahoma City National Memorial comprises discrete experiences for victims, survivors and rescuers. When it was still a disaster site, people came to leave notes, teddy bears and photos on the wire fences. They just had to be a part of it, and that just had to be a part of the memorial, another section of grief's theme park.
The same thing happened at the Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania. People came to leave pieces of themselves - flags, t-shirts and bitter political graffiti. It might be an organic response, but it's just more of Me.
The other Nine-Eleven memorials reprise the theme that architect Maya Lin adopted for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In Arlington, there is a bench for each victim. At Ground Zero, each victim's name is inscribed on the parapets of the inverse fountains that occupy the towers' footprints.
Elevating the individual out of a collective loss seems a noble idea. The collective-loss memorial was too often a site for meaning imposed from above, by generals and politicians. That solitary soldier looming over so many Southern squares was put there at first to honor lost lives as well as a lost cause, but eventually he was used to guard against necessary change. The individualized grief of our time has served us no better. With no common principles to temper raw emotion, we're even easier prey for manipulative leaders. We've marched into two costly and relentless wars and surrendered some of our rights because we've failed to achieve the unity we once trumpeted. Think of all those car-window flags that ended as roadside scrap.
This anniversary, though, is a good time to ask to whom Nine-Eleven really belongs. The victims and their survivors make a compelling case, of course, however much each of us might want to claim a piece of that day. And their mourning must be acknowledged in memory's landscape.
But in remembering Nine-Eleven, we should avow the ideals hated by our attackers, and offer more than individual solace. Nine-Eleven should belong to none of us - but to all of us.
Chuck Twardy is an Ayden-based free-lance writer and an instructor with the School of Communication at East Carolina University.