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Subject:  The Meaning of Monuments Date:  9/14/2001  12:24 AM
Author:  TMFCheeze Number:  2753 of 177612

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