Rituals of Mourning and National Innocence

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2005 | Go to article overview

Rituals of Mourning and National Innocence


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


We have a place, all of us, in a long story-a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.

- George W. Bush, 20 January 2001 ("Inaugural Address").

Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.

-George W. Bush, 14 September 2001 ("President's Remarks at National Day of Prayer").

Rituals, defined simply for this article, are public expressions of sentiment that convey meanings to audiences. Ritual behavior surged after the 9/11 disasters. Rituals of mourning came quickly and spontaneously, especially near the zones of disaster in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. More important for US foreign policy were what I call "rituals of national innocence," official ceremonies linked to moral narratives about America's benign or benevolent military power in history, a practice illustrated by the Bush inaugural address cited above. Rituals of innocence have not previously been named or theorized, yet the notion of national innocence seems central to post-9/11 ceremonies that helped shape a consensus about global military initiatives against terrorists and the need for pre-emptive war in Iraq.

How might we explain this rhetoric of national innocence in American public life? An array of concepts in the scholarship on American "exceptionalism" could be invoked: Ernest Tuveson's "redeemer nation" (1968), Martin E. Marty's "righteous empire" (1970), Walter McDougal's "promised land, crusader state" (1997), Colin Cherry's "God's New Israel" (1998), and "the Captain America complex" of Robert Jewett and John Shelton Eawrence (2003). Here the approach focuses more narrowly on ritual, providing first a brief overview for the less complex rituals of mourning, then analyzing the structure, presuppositions, and social mechanisms of innocence rituals.

What is the critical purpose of such analysis? Although President Bush's rhetoric and rituals have provoked accusations of naïveté and national narcissism, such judgments must be tempered by recognizing that rituals of national innocence became a well-established tradition during the past several decades. President George W. Bush must be seen as the bearer of a popular tradition. To the extent that these rituals are problematic for the nation's future, they represent an issue m popular political sentiment, as well as the style and vision of a particular president. To think otherwise is to underestimate their durability and power to surface in future situations of crisis.

Rituals of Mourning

The events of 9/11 occasioned feelings of loss shared by the nation and much of the world. This unifying grief first appeared spontaneously through individual or small group rituals. In New York City, for example, relatives and friends created shrines with pictures of the missing, messages for them, personal possessions, and poems of lamentation about them. These sites have been well documented photographically by Martha Cooper and others ("Hallowed Ground"). In the dust that clung to surfaces near Ground Zero, individuals used their fingers to trace dismay, hope, anger, or regret. Groups gathered in parks or in church settings to meditate, pray for the dead and injured, and implore for peace. The folklorists Steve Zeitlin and liana Harlow evocatively described the scenes they witnessed in Manhattan's parks, where "New Yorkers recreated the towers in miniature using tin, papier mache, and paint. Red, white, and blue candles flickered alongside Christian votives, Jewish memorial jabrtzeit, and offertory candles petitioning intercessors. ... New Yorkers came together in a public ritual that in its transcendence of any single belief system represented all of them. …

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