September 11th arrived and many commemorations--big and small--occurred simultaneously across the country, joining us as a nation within an act of mourning and pageantry and dialogue. Anthropologists often note that these symbolic acts--these displays that intrude into the daily grind of the hamster wheel that is life--remind us we are a nation: a nation that shares the same songs, same symbols and same values.
So it came as some surprise to wake up this morning and hear the sad news: that the college campus that anchors my neighborhood--the campus in which President Barrack Obama spent the first two years of his college career--experienced an act that some have called "vandalism."
Oxy's Republican Students initiated the display of miniature flags as a gesture toward the idea of never forgetting September 11th. You've seen these displays before--a profusion of miniature flags planted throughout the campus, one for each person who died in the destruction of the twin towers. All told: 2,977. They are a part of the folk display of patriotism that you might encounter in many public spaces throughout our country, and it is quite wonderful to encounter them randomly--as if one has suddenly walked through a field of daffodils.
But the flags were destroyed by an as-of-yet-unknown group. This anonymous group then replaced the memorial with a photocopied statement to this effect: that we Americans have chosen to selectively forget many things about our own involvement in the prosecution of an unjust war.
The photocopy bid the victims of September 11th to rest in peace. But it also bid the victims of the Iraq War--the millions of victims--to rest in peace, too. And it observed that the Iraqis were as much innocent victims as those who died in the inferno that was the fiery collapse of the twin towers.
This act has been represented not only as vandalism but as a shutting down of free speech--one that has been condemned by the administration and news organs. I can understand this sentiment. My father is a military man who was trained at one of the great institutions of the United States. And he is proud of his connection to that great enterprise. He taught me to honor the flag of this country.
That said, the execution of this act points toward the fact that the event of destruction still constitutes a memorializing act, that it is still an exercise of free speech, that it is still telling us to never forget in an altogether different way: that the war we are still involved in is something that was made possible through strategic acts of forgetting.
Could it be that in our acts of memorializing we are also involved in acts of forgetting? That our displays of patriotism are ways to spur us on to war? I'd like to share one small anecdote that I feel is relevant to the mindset of students who might be engaged in an action that otherwise might be viewed as simple vandalism.
This past Labor Day Weekend, I went shopping at the malls. It's Back to School Shopping time and as someone who spent a few years as a college professor, I still like to feel the energy of students getting ready for the school year with their bright eager minds and their powerful convictions.
Throughout many of the stores--stores like Urban Outfitters, for instance--the big trend is army fatigues, flight jackets. Camouflage is big. Color patches with semi-military regalia are a must. And those satin war jackets with the embroidery have become the runaway hit; they have seen their way from the runways of Louis Vuitton, where they sell for thousands of dollars; they have found themselves into cheaper stores, well within the price point of the college freshman.
What is curious about these kinds of displays is that they merchandise a nostalgia for a war--a war that is imagined to always exist within the past. But which is still occurring in the present. So I wonder this: Could we think of this act of vandalism not so much as a disruption of the dialogue that the Republican Students started but an extension of the conversation to its next logical conclusion?
And if so, can we see how this concern about forgetting is uppermost in the minds of young students as they enter into the Back To School Season? After all, everything in our culture is telling them to forget. Even memorials themselves are memorials that are at base memorials of forgetting.