“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Laurence Binyon’s lines “For the Fallen” occur as we contemplate what is appropriate to commemorate those lost in the September 11 attack. He spoke of young lost in war but somehow the words seem to say what is in America’s heart, still wrenching after one short year.
But there is confusion as to the form and size of a permanent memorial where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Are we recalling our lost or are we striving to immortalize the infamy? We “Remember Pearl Harbor” but not now in the same vengeful sense that we pledged in 1941 when we agreed with FDR that the day would live in infamy. We in fact did avenge Pearl Harbor, in spades.
New York City’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani has written for Time magazine his view that all 16 acres devastated in Lower Manhattan should be “first and foremost a memorial.” “If it were up to me,” he writes, “I’d devote the entire 16 acres to the memorial.” Giuliani envisions a soaring structure visible for miles, but cautions against any commercialization. “If we let some minor memorial be dwarfed by office space,” he warns, then “people a hundred years from now will say this generation did not understand the significance of that world-altering day.”
In commemorating the loss of life do we run the risk of underscoring the success of the attack for other generations who are not and will not be our friends? Do we tell them by de-capitalizing 16 acres of the most productive economic ground on earth that what we banish from these grounds is dross — that what was here was unworthy of being here?
Fifty years ago there was a terrible auto accident near Missoula, Montana. The American Legion post decided it appropriate to post a remembrance that would also serve as a reminder of safety. It put up a white metal cross by the roadside at the site. It established a policy that has seen thousands of crosses placed at fatal accident sites across the state, maintained and re-painted annually by the local Legion posts in whose region the accidents occurred. Larry Stroklund, in charge of the program, says the crosses cost five dollars each, and the mounting post is six. Multiple-death wrecks require multiple crosses. There are 11 at the site where a school bus plunged into the North Fork of the Flathead River.
But what was meant as a public safety reminder, of a dangerous curve or a blind corner, has in recent years become something else. Survivors and mourners now repair increasingly to these sites and decorate the reminders, with wreaths, flags and decorations more appropriate to grave sites. It is a devotion to the locus of disaster that the Legion and the State Highway Patrol discourage, but it is a growing phenomenon.
Most articles of most faiths teach that the geography of death is not what matters in terms of venerating the departed. Yet, as those little roadside crosses out in Montana attest, life’s ending has a time and a place. How to regard it, to cherish it, to make certain that at the going down of the sun and in the morning we remember them is part of the unfinished business of September 11th.