In Memoriam

By Carter, Stephen L. | Newsweek, September 12, 2011 | Go to article overview
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In Memoriam

Carter, Stephen L., Newsweek

Byline: Stephen L. Carter

Clashes over how to commemorate 9/11 are a sign of our strength.

Ironically, much of our attention to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks involves our distinctively American propensity to point to our own faults. Ten years have passed, critics moan, and One World Trade Center isn't finished. Controversy lingers over both placement and content of the memorial at the site. (Even over whether the Latin inscription from Virgil is appropriate.) We are squabbling over prayer--or the lack thereof--at the dedication ceremony, and whether the planning has paid too much attention or too little to the families of those who died.

Why do we even build them--these memorials to life's cataclysms, to the suffering and horror of the present hour? In theory we build memorials so that future generations will remember, but in practice they too often aid in forgetting. Too many times it is the memorial and not the tragedy that we recall.

The greatest oration ever delivered on American soil was Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg--the speech, says historian Garry Wills, from which "all modern political prose descends." But Lincoln predicted, wrongly, that future generations would forget his words and remember the deeds of those who left their lives on the battlefield. Matters have worked out the other way around. The Gettysburg Address has become the stuff of legend, quoted in useful bits by politicians and pundits, memorized by schoolchildren. But who (if we are honest) remembers the battle?

In her difficult but fascinating book An Ethics of Remembering, the philosopher Edith Wyschogrod tells us that the great challenge in the wake of cataclysm is building "a community of shared experience." We did share Sept. 11--briefly. For a powerful national moment, the tragedy belonged to all of us. Then our national community was rent asunder, and the tragedy with it, as we collapsed as usual into our separate warring tribes.

But this is America, and such disagreements--like the disagreements over the memorial--are evidence of what is right and not what is wrong with our nation.

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