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|Subject: The Meaning of Monuments||Date: 9/14/2001 12:24 AM|
|Author: TMFCheeze||Number: 2753 of 175570|
I drove across the river into Washington yesterday. I'm not quite sure why I did it, except that I felt drawn there. I wanted to wander among the monuments for a while. I'm not sure why, except that perhaps I wanted to somehow pay my respects, to feel more rooted in the events of these past several days. Or maybe I was there because I needed some kind of reassurance -- to touch the monuments and to make sure they were still there. After a week like we've just had, you wonder a bit what might still be standing.
It seemed useless gesture, perhaps. It was an exercise made more in search of my own solace than anyone else's. For what, really, could I expect my presence in that place to do for me, or for anyone?
What are these monuments for? What good are they? Why did the generations before us set up these pompous slabs of marble, this collection of gargantuan bric a brac, over the course of the last couple of centuries? After Tuesday's attack, with thousands dead and far beyond any help I could give them, what is it about the mall in Washington that compelled my presence? No walk through this park would do anything to resolve our crisis. And yet I found myself wandering there, walking on some kind of unbidden and aimless patrol, for what reason I did not quite know.
I wandered from one end of the mall to the other, beginning at the Capitol, past all the shrines of our nation, past the National Archives, where our Constitution and Declaration are kept, past the Smithsonian, which houses the flag for which Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem. In a detour, I wandered up into the city, up to Ford's Theatre and, nearby, the house where Lincoln died. I angled up Pennsylvania Avenue and stepped past the White House and the tall obelisk that is the Washington Monument. From there I strolled past tourists and policemen westward and into the small hollow and the dark stone: our memorial to those who died in Vietnam. And beyond that, I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the temple where Lincoln's memory, the words carved in marble report, is enshrined "forever."
My presence there gave nothing to the world, and while it felt proper for me to be there at that moment I could not discover the use of it. It was good to look at the others milling about, the dozen or so people who were sitting on the Memorial Steps, casually, showing no sense of alarm -- although they would be justified in that alarm, given the events of the days past. In such a place one is called upon to think of the sacrifices and the dedications that made our way of life possible, and yet those thoughts did not seem apparent, not in that moment, not to me. For all the lofty thoughts I should have been thinking from that position, I had none. From that vantage, at the temple of Lincoln, I could look out at reminders of all the great moments of our history arrayed before me, and all I could wonder was, what is a nation's history but one damned crisis after another.
So what is a monument for? What is it but the means by which one age speaks to another? What does it say to us, except to mark the travails that have preceded us? These are structures meant to stand for centuries, a gesture made from one era to the next, to remind us that the world that was brought to us arrived at some considerable cost. Those that came before us are telling us not only that they endured, but that in that endurance they brought to those ages that followed something worthy of our respect and attention. They wanted us to look back to their moments of crisis and remind ourselves of the work they did in our behalf, in a desperate and uncertain era, to rescue from crisis the virtues and prosperities we enjoy today.
We can, all of us, this nation, and this world, look ahead to some very difficult weeks. We can expect our country to face some very extreme and unpleasant circumstances, and I am not at all certain that our behavior in this crisis will prove to be exemplary. The attacks of this week tore a hole in us, and not all of what is spilling out seems to represent the best of that which is in us. The prospect that we will come to see made manifest the ugliest part of our nature frightens me even more than the attacks that were committed against us. While there is no question that those who committed Tuesday's atrocity must be rendered helpless, and while it is our duty to dismantle the machinery and the network that made their crimes possible, I fear that we will lash out beyond reason, beyond rational scope, that we will become some mad spirit loosed upon the world, bent on vengeance and manifesting every image of hate that is in our hearts, however right and justified we might be in pursuing our cause. I fear the trauma we have suffered this week might warp us, and turn us into the image of what we seek to destroy.
The mind that plotted and executed Tuesday's attack will come to feel far more than the weight of two skyscrapers falling upon his head. I have no doubt that our retribution will be inexorable and complete. I feel no obligation to show mercy -- on the contrary, our greater duty, it seems, is that our reaction must be swift and severe. But there is a great danger in our wrath, a danger perhaps greater than that which we seek to destroy. It is the damage we risk doing to ourselves in becoming the vehicle for this retribution that gives me pause. The part in us that calls for blood is not the best part in us. And yet I feel the same sting we all feel, I feel that anger, and I see within me the ugliness that comes with it. I am not comfortable seeing that ugliness in the faces of the people around me, and I am even less comfortable seeing it in myself. We need the perspective that monuments bring us; we need to ask ourselves the questions they demand of us.
What kind of world will we leave beyond this moment of crisis? What will be the shape of the monuments we build?
Lincoln called for mercy in the treatment of the defeated. But that mercy came only after the most ruthless of wars. It is this day of blood that frightens me, this moment between now and the time of our victory, where I wonder what kind of trauma we might cause ourselves in rooting out those who seek to destroy us.
And so, in discovering these thoughts, perhaps these monuments were working their magic in me after all. In hearkening to these past crises I came to understand that we are in a moment that will test us, and the character we display in these months will be reflected in the world we live in that follows them. Perhaps, after all my doubts, I had begun to think the sorts of thoughts worthy of the place I stood.
By this moment of my tour of the mall it was getting dark. When you look eastward from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at sunset on a clear day, you see all of the monuments arrayed before you, and it is the very same scene you have been shown in photographs since your earliest days in school. The ages speak to you here, and as you walk back toward the Capitol Building, past the Korean War Memorial (with its words, "Freedom Is Not Free" looking especially poignant at the moment), as you approach, again, the Washington Monument, and over the Tidal Basin with the Jefferson Memorial to your right, you wonder, after the horrendous and devastating attacks we have suffered, what twist of fate kept these monuments standing for yet one more day. Even as the World Trade Center is gone, these monuments still stand.
The ages do speak to you here. They speak of days of challenge and crisis and struggle and endurance. They memorialize sacrifice and survival and at times even triumph. And they also mark the price paid for that endurance and those victories.
As I approached the Capitol, I found myself walking among an increasingly greater throng. I had been aware that there were calls for a candlelight vigil to take place at the reflecting pool near the Capitol that evening: a commemoration and a remembrance for those lost this week, and a statement of endurance in its own way -- a memorial in flesh and blood and voice rather than of stone. When I reached the reflecting pool, I stepped into the midst of the crowd that was there gathered, only to realize -- quite suddenly -- that we were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. That done, a voice began to sing the National Anthem.
Our flag was still there, said the song, and so it was, and is. Yet one more day.
I spent quite a long while wandering through that crowd. I could not stand still; I wanted to look into as many faces as I could -- I wanted to see not just candles in the dark, but the people who held them. Eventually I came to sit beneath the statue of General Grant which dominates that portion of the grounds. There I listened as one song after another wafted into the air as the people sang them -- anthems, hymns, Francis Scott Key and Woody Guthrie. Sometimes you heard one part of the crowd singing one song, and sometimes another part singing another, but somehow the music never found a way to clash, always the sound formed a kind of round, disjointed, united whole. E Pluribus Unum, I thought.
And there was one greatest encouragement I sensed in this crowd: In spite of the occasion, in spite of my expectation, in spite of every possible justification -- I saw no anger here. None at all. There were no demonstrations of hate, no chanting for vengeance or blood. Thousands of people came together only as strangers in a throng, their candles flickering, their voices rising spontaneously together. I saw nothing in these faces but a calm resolve, a spirit of peace and respect, and a determination, like these monuments, to endure. These voices were singing from now until the next age, whenever that next age will dawn. And I knew then that even if all of these monuments, to the last stone, had been torn from their foundations and strewn across these fields in these several desperate days, what is American here would yet endure here, even unto the next age.
Let us be careful about what we become in these months that will shape that next age. Let us prepare to build monuments that will be worthy of those we now have. Let us build them in our hearts before we place them in stone. Think of the work that must be done now, but think also of the shape of the peace that must follow.
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