This past week, during a conversation about current events with my senior Race in America class, Colin Kaepernick and the question of the purpose of protest came up. As we discussed the protest and the subsequent fallout, something I hadn’t really thought about occurred to me: in the past 15 years, we’ve raised a generation of people who see the flag, the national anthem, and other symbols of American patriotism as synonymous with support for the military.
Now, patriotic display has always had a martial edge in the US (and most other places). But today, and for the past 15 years, “supporting the troops” and “supporting American symbols” have been paired so closely in our culture that my students simply couldn’t conceive of another reason to honor the flag or sing the anthem. American ideals have been so completely subsumed under American power that the truth of endless war, of surveillance, of rote displays of nationalism, and of shaming those who do not participate now go essentially unchallenged.
This past month, I made my first visit to the 9/11 memorial. I don’t really know why it took me so long; its unfinished nature, perhaps, or a discomfort I feel with the martial aspect of remembering that day. I’m glad I finally went, though I couldn’t stay long. I’m glad because I didn’t find there the jingoism that too often goes along with remembrance. Instead I found a space marked most dramatically by what has been lost.
The 9/11 memorial rings the footprints of the twin towers: gaping holes in the Manhattan soil, with water rushing in and never filling up. The wide footprint gives way at center to a smaller opening, the bottom of which you cannot see from the edge. It seems bottomless. It is surrounded, in an homage to the Vietnam Memorial (still the gold standard, in my eyes, for how to remember a painful event) by the names of those lost, but even those names are defined by emptiness: rather than being carved into stone, they are cut from metal itself, much as the people they represent were cut from metal that day.
Conservative pundits in particular like to talk about September 12, 2001, a day they often describe glowingly as a moment of unity, when we came together as a nation. I don’t remember feeling that. I remember dread and loss. I was nearly 23 that day, in my first job out of college and working at Facing History and Ourselves, a history education non-profit that does good work examining the painful chapters in humanity’s past. We all gathered together in the library that morning, gathered around a single television, watching, crying, wondering. Whatever unity was felt was out of fear and a need for community, and those are important emotions but I don’t look back on them wistfully. Because we lost something that day much greater than any unity we gained. We lost sight of the mission. It had always been clouded from view, but that day it vanished completely, and I don’t know how often we’ve glimpsed it since. It’s a vision of a country ruled not by fear but by hope; a country of dialogue, not of silence; a country of protest and movement and life, not lock-step marching.
We remember today the people we lost, and we should. But there’s room in that endless pit at the heart of Ground Zero for more: there’s room for the ideals we lost sight of that day. And endless pit might just be big enough to hold them all.