Bearing witness

May 30, 2004|By Arthur J. Magida

A MONTH AGO, a large mistake by small-minded people did us all a giant favor.

When Sinclair Broadcast Group refused to broadcast Ted Koppel reading the names of 700-plus Americans killed in Iraq, we received a quickie lesson in the political implications of memory: how a fairly neutral act - noting the names of the fallen, one by one - can, stupidly, be perceived as overtly political. Yes, this is an election year, and we're surrounded by slogans and the bending of truth. But names are names and the fallen are the fallen, and shame upon those who tamper with the dignity and the honor of those serving, and dying, for the nation.

On this Memorial Day, little is more sacred than recalling those whose blood spilled for this country. We also know that, without etching their names, one by one, into our hearts or into a black slate wall, as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington so brilliantly does, these names run the risk of falling into oblivion, of dropping into what George Orwell dubbed "the memory hole."

Mr. Koppel wanted to bear witness. Nothing more than that. As anthropologist Paul Connerton, the author of How Societies Remember, has said, "What is horrifying in totalitarian regimes is not only the violation of human dignity, but the fear that there might remain nobody who would ever again properly bear witness to the past."

Apparently, witnessing is dangerous - maybe because names are so potent. They carry memories of hopscotch and sandlot baseball, cotton candy and apple pie, driving lessons and driving accidents, first dates and first loves and, in the case of Mr. Koppel's Nightline, first bullets, first landmines or first brutalization at the hands of angry mobs.

At the core of Mr. Orwell's 1984 is the realization that the struggle of citizens against state power is the struggle of their memory against forced forgetting. Mr. Orwell's heroes make it their aim not only to save themselves, but to survive as witnesses to later generations: to become relentless recorders of what is and what has been.

Winston Smith, a clerk in the Ministry of Truth, alters newspapers and other documents in accordance with the pronouncements of Big Brother and the Party. In Mr. Orwell's dystopia, political control is exercised through the control of information, including the control of memory: "Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past."

Sinclair Broadcast's chutzpah highlights the forces that come into play when deciding the shape and the content of our national memory. It illustrates the very determining of history and what future generations will know of us and, indeed, what they will think of us: Past, present and future are all entwined. Manipulating any one of these, as the censors at Sinclair dared to do, manipulates all three.

Memory traces the arc of our journeys - our individual journeys and our collective journeys. Individually and collectively, we travel from childhood and adolescence, when everything is quick and urgent, maybe because there is little memory to bog us down and we haven't learned much yet; to our middle years, which may be burdened by a patina of tragedy, even futility, because we can imagine our extinction that lies ahead while also wondering whatever happened to the child that we were; and finally, we progress to our closing years: Death approaches and, at last, our light is extinguished. We either accept our finality or, as Dylan Thomas wrote, we "do not go gentle into that good night" and "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

These days, there's much raging: by Iraqis against Americans, by certain foreign countries and their citizens against the United States, by some Americans against other Americans. It's an unsettling time, made more unsettling by that terrible penumbra of 9/11 and the shadow of a future 9/11.

On this Memorial Day, though, as on every Memorial Day, we can't let the names go down our "memory hole." It's the names - those men and women in uniform - who have ensured that we have days such as these: days when we can be proud that we are Americans - if we fulfill the promise of America, an America that's free and open and tolerant and compassionate, that invokes respect and admiration, not fear and dread.

Hearing all those names on Nightline a few weeks ago (if you were not among the victims of Sinclair's self-righteousness) or seeing the names at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington or knowing that hole in your heart where you harbor the love of someone who died in service to this country may all sound gloomy and dire. Yet the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius put a happier spin on this gloom. "Life goes on," he wrote. "It is the lives, the lives, the lives that die."

For Lucretius, we're part of a vast human chain, and in the end everything continues, continues, continues.

Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of Baltimore. His most recent book is The Rabbi and the Hit Man (HarperCollins, 2003).

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