Silence will offer space to reflect on 9/11
By Andrew Fiala
Fresno Bee 2011-09-10
Memorial activities dedicated to 9/11 have continued to create controversy. Critics on the right complained that when President Obama called for national service in honor of 9/11, he was slipping “socialism” into Patriot Day. And on the left, critics worry that the name “Patriot Day” is itself too nationalistic and militaristic.
This year the dispute is over the place of prayer in the dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The plans for the event do not include public prayer. In response, the Family Research Council has circulated a petition that concludes: “This nation needs prayer more than politics.” But public prayer is political. Public prayers would inevitably include some and exclude others.
All public speech is political. Perhaps what we need is more silence and less squabbling. The 9/11 ceremony in New York will, in fact, include several moments of silence. This is the best way to proceed in a diverse society in which religion is politicized. Indeed, silent reflection is welcome, in a culture that is filled with speech. In silence, we can sort out our own thoughts — apart from the incessant bickering and chattering of public life.
Our desire to give speeches and offer public words of prayer is connected with our need to make sense of things. We want a story in which events have some meaning. But our stories are tendentious. We always reconstruct the past based upon our present concerns. Over time, as our memories fade, we establish memorial rituals, as an attempt to preserve the past against the corrosive power of time. But these ritual memorials are partial and biased. They skate on the surface, while lacking the complexity of serious history.
For several years, the images and emotion of 9/11 were seared into our memories. Those who were directly involved in the horrors of that day may never be able to forget. But for many, the memories fade. And events that were once so vivid, now become episodes in a story that is being told to the next generation, which has no living memory of the event.
Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the problem of memory in his essay, “Experience.” Emerson was troubled by the fact that he could no longer feel the same grief for his dead son as he did in the days and months immediately after his son had died. Emerson worried that forgetting was disloyal to the past. He concluded: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”
But forgetting is natural and normal. It is healthy to turn the page and allow the past to become a story. And we should admit that these stories cannot touch the reality of what is past. Even atrocities are forgotten and we are left with stone memorials and ritualized ceremonies. Emerson said that things “slip through our fingers when we clutch hardest.” The more we try to hold on to the fading past, the less we grasp it.
As we pause to remember 9/11, it is important to recognize the complexity of the process of remembrance. It is easy to be swept away by maudlin spectacles and sentimental speeches. There is pleasure in the emotional excess of public ceremony. It is comforting to belong to a community that remembers and grieves together. We need these ceremonies to reassure us and to express solidarity with those who are still suffering from trauma.
We want to belong, to share a common story, to celebrate a common past, and mourn a common loss. But somehow public speeches don’t go deep enough. The staged emotion of public ceremony is too shallow to reach the reality of a past that is slowly fading away. And oratory offered in commemoration is always colored by present purposes. The controversy about prayer at the 9/11 event is, after all, as much about the politics of the present as it is about the past.
There is a time for speeches and for prayer. But silence is also useful. And we don’t have nearly enough of it. As Thoreau — Emerson’s disciple — put it, “silence is the universal refuge.” Silence allows us to think on our own terms, outside of the din of public life. And silence offers a common refuge for each of us, whatever our religious or political inclination.