A Time for Remembrance

Collective memory experienced at warp speed may leave little time for processing the enormity of what really happened

2001 9/11 2006

Five years

September 05, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and concentration camp survivor, has spent most of his 77 years gazing in a rearview mirror, pondering the wherefores and the whys of war and the Holocaust.

"I believe in memory," he said shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. "To me, memory is a dimension without which I could not go on living."

Wiesel was in New York City when the wounded World Trade Center towers heaved and sighed, then collapsed into rubble. Doomed people held hands and stepped off window ledges into space. Lower Manhattan reeked of death, of the Apocalypse. The terrorist attack, he says now, was "a great, singular moment in American history and world history."

Yet he won't be keeping a close eye on the Sept. 11 commemorations. Better to let passing time massage that tragedy, just as rushing water smoothes stones in a river bed, as wind sculpts a rugged landscape.

"It's only five years. Most of the people who were there are still alive. It's impossible not to remember," he explains. "The danger is when people speak about it, but don't stop before speaking. There's no thought. It doesn't come from the depths of memory."

No one has published a handbook for coping with calamity on a grand scale. How do the aggrieved make sense of the senseless? What words and gestures do justice when the dead are piled so high? Where's the line separating sentiment from sensationalism?

Conflicting emotions met conflicting obligations in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The brain argues for reflection and restraint. The heart hungers for action and immediacy. Do something. But do it right.

And, never forget.

Memory, Wiesel once observed, has "its own secret melody, its own architecture and its own limitations." That's the voice of older-generation reason, from someone who's a stranger to the Internet, picture phones and podcasts.

Amy Weinstein, an associate curator at the New York Historical Society, is younger and, therefore, perhaps inclined to embrace the legacy of Sept. 11 with more open arms.

"I think it's the telescoping of time," she says of the impending fifth-anniversary observances. "Our perceptions of time are very different now."

The New York Historical Society hasn't shied away from Sept. 11. It already has presented 15 related exhibitions. The latest - and "most unusal" acquisition says Weinstein - (Elegy in the Dust) features sweaters, tank tops and jeans removed from a downtown storefront that had become a makeshift memorial. Still covered with World Trade Center ash, the items are being displayed in a 12-foot-high, Plexiglas diorama.

Across the nation, Americans are preparing to publicly acknowledge Sept. 11 as never before. Some events will achieve perfect-pitch solemnity. Others may seem as overblown and contrived as a Super Bowl halftime extravaganza. But memory must be served.

There will be seminars, communal prayers and choirs. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki are scheduled to preside over a ceremony at Ground Zero that includes the annual reading of all 2,749 names of World Trade Center victims.

There will be a memorial softball game between police and firefighters in Escondido, Calif. "Flags of Remembrance" will fly outside the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Omaha, Neb. Bayonne, N.J., will dedicate its new Sept. 11 monument. A nine-day Torches Across America 9-11 Memorial Motorcycle Ride ends in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 slammed into the ground. A company is hawking a 2001-2006 World Trade Center commemorative coin ($29.95) that has pop-up Twin Towers.

The media, of course, will be obliged to resurrect those familiar, embedded-in-the-brain images. Again, photos of firefighters climbing smoky staircases to oblivion and photos of firefighters planting their flag at Ground Zero. Again, video of that plane plunging into Tower 2 like a knife straight to the heart.

For the insatiable it can be deja vu all over again: CNN.com's Pipeline plans to replay the network's original Sept. 11 coverage in real time from 8:30 a.m. to midnight on the anniversary.

But we may be making history as much as marking it. As a rule, turning points in American life have been revisited with surprisingly little fanfare, especially early on. July 4, 1868 - almost five years to the day after the battle of Gettysburg - found President Andrew Johnson issuing a general amnesty for Confederate soldiers. Reconciliation trumped hoopla.

"They marked the battle anniversaries, but they were really local affairs," says Scott Hartwig, supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. "You didn't see any sort of a national observance of the battle till 1888."

Five years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an Associated Press photograph shows about a dozen soldiers saluting as the "shrapnel-torn flag" that had flown that awful day was raised at Hickam Field in Honolulu. The Navy opted to do nothing. As one officer commented in the AP story, "We want to forget - not remember - Pearl Harbor."

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