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How We Memorialize 9/11—and What it Says About Us

10:36 PM, Sep 6, 2011 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Lots of words have been and will be written for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but Wilfred McClay has set a very high standard of courage, clarity, and eloquence with his "Memorializing September 11th." It's in the forthcoming issue of National Affairs, and is now available on their website. Here's a sample—but, really, do read the whole thing:

National Park Service 9-11 Statue of Liberty and WTC

“The fact that there is still so little consensus about the meaning of events so momentous and terrible, and so plainly injurious to the national life, has to be taken as an ominous sign about where we stand as a people….

“Clearly the first imperative in commemorating an event like September 11th has to be the simple act of honoring the fallen — our countrymen and those who died on our country's soil — and of committing ourselves as a people to remembering them by giving tangible and enduring expression to our shared grief. Such acts of shared remembrance are at the very heart of what it means to be a nation….

“In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, many brave words were spoken and loud boasts were made about how the city would bounce back and rebuild the Twin Towers even higher. But a decade has now passed, and those promises ring sickeningly hollow….

“That point is a simple one: The fact that so little has been restored in ten years should be a source of deep concern to all of us. It is no small thing. It is nothing less than a national disgrace that a project of such profound symbolic importance to the American people, and to the world, has remained trapped in the entrails of petty business as usual. But one thing should be clear: This is not a failure attributable in some general way to the negligence of the American people as a whole, since they are not the ones who decide such things as the disposition of Manhattan real estate or the design of monuments and memorials. It is specifically the failure of the nation's leadership class — of its political, cultural, intellectual, legal, and business elites — and of the intersecting ways that their actions and beliefs have served to thwart a profound national need. Any attempt to memorialize September 11th should above all else express American resiliency, American strength, and American determination to prevail over the forces represented by the attacks. A chronically troubled work in progress expresses the opposite things, with a vividness that needs no elaboration.

“But in America, a failure of the leadership class need not mean a comprehensive failure of the nation. There are always reasons to be hopeful about our country, which has a remarkable ability to renew itself….

“My favorite keepers of the September 11th flame are the Freeport Flag Ladies, three Maine women who have for the past ten years kept a simple but profound weekly observance of the event. During their 'Tuesday on the Hill,' which takes place each week on Main Street in Freeport, they hold large American flags in remembrance of the events of September 11th and in honor of the service and sacrifice of American troops….

“Such keepers do not suffer from ambivalence about the meaning of September 11th, and their love and clarity are both tonic and contagious. New York, and the rest of America, need to find a way to share in their spirit.”

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