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In the US, Remembering Violent Deaths Means Forgetting Why They Happened

Memorials to tragic US events, such as Columbine, are designed without context and treat victims like heroes.

Most well-known memorials, which create acts of "collective memory" actually exclude the contextual memory of "What did these people die for?" and why? The official memorial for the Columbine High School shootings gives no clue whatsoever as to how and why these 12 students and one teacher died. (Photo: Wayne Harrison / Flickr)

In the wake of tragedy, it has become common in the United States to create memorials that focus on the mass loss of human life — from the Vietnam War to the Oklahoma City Bombing, from the Columbine Shootings to 9/11. In her new book, Harriet F. Senie argues that these national memorials have had the effect of obscuring the real causes and victims of events they claim to mark. Click here to order a copy of Memorials to Shattered Myths from Truthout!

How can memorials to mass violent deaths position the victims as heroic and evoke mourning but also reinforce a narrative of US exceptionalism and triumphalism? In an in-depth aesthetic and cultural study of major memorials, Harriet F. Senie provides us with a deeper understanding of how monuments to large-scale US violent loss of life can remove such events from their historical context.

The following is the Truthout interview with Harriet F. Senie.

Mark Karlin: Of course, 9/11 is the most “sacred” national tragedy of recent years around which there is a cult and solemnity of national mourning. What are we forgetting about 9/11 in the way that we venerate the dead with such collective sacredness?

Harriet F. Senie: At the National September 11 Memorial & Museum we are prompted to have an experience of reenactment of the bombings. Peering into Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” we are constantly reminded of the falling buildings if not the individuals who leaped out of their windows. At the museum we are surrounded by relics of the buildings and walls of images of those killed and some personal recollections, as well as some actual as yet unidentified remains.

Harriet E. Senie. (Photo: Oxford University Press)Harriet E. Senie. (Photo: Oxford University Press)What is missing is an in depth presentation of the political history and context of what might have prompted this shocking event of international terrorism or what motivated the individual perpetrators who died while carrying it out. How were they recruited? What precisely did they intend to accomplish? What was the political and cultural impact of their act? How can we consider these complexities and devise future programs and/or actions that might help us understand and hopefully address these and other relevant issues?

We are also forgetting that those who died were for the most part victims — not heroes — yet we venerate them as if they were the latter.These were people who showed up for work or had the grave misfortune to be visiting the building for various reasons. Many may have behaved heroically (but we have no way of knowing who they were). Certainly the police and firemen did; since their job definition includes putting their lives at risk, they are more akin to soldiers to whom we pay tribute in war memorials. Conflating heroes and victims obscures a universal value system as well as a historical understanding of what actually happened.

What would memorials that incorporate the context of the deaths be like?

Memorials and museums that incorporate the context of these deaths might include education centers with changing programs that address current and evolving issues. At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, there is a room for “kitchen conversations” where people sit around a table and consider subjects raised by the tour they have just completed. This model could be used to good advantage by employing individuals trained in museum education, which for years now has been based on involving visitors in active ways to engage with what they are seeing.

Given the diversity of visitors to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, such exchanges could be highly informative both for them and those leading the discussions. Such sessions should be considered works in constant process, reflecting shifting audience demographics and world histories. In light of what appears to be a widespread and appalling lack of historical awareness, such facilities should be considered a necessary exit strategy of any such memorial. These programs might be recorded digitally and stored in the museums’ archives for use in future research.

Beyond places for discussion there could be spaces for reflection — libraries with books pertinent to contextualizing and understanding the commemorated act. These would provide individuals with the opportunity to read further or make note of works they might wish to revisit in the future.

Museums, such as the one at the Oklahoma City National Memorial include a space where children can make drawings that respond to what they have seen and heard. This could be expanded to include adults. People respond to culturally traumatic events in various ways — not only verbal — and these expressions (whatever form they take: poetry, art, music, etc.) may then serve as verbal prompts for discussion as well as personal reflections for visitors to take home or contribute to the museum’s archives.

You state in your conclusion that most well-known memorials, which create acts of “collective memory” actually exclude the contextual memory of “What did these people die for?” and why? How does that apply, for instance, to the official memorial of the Columbine High School, for example?

The official memorial for the Columbine High School shootings gives no clue whatsoever as to how and why these twelve students and one teacher died. It is located at a distance from the high school and not visible from there. It makes no reference to the two boys who shot them before killing themselves.

The memorial consists of an Inner Ring of Remembrance and an Outer Ring of Healing; an image of the “Never Forgotten” ribbon designed by one of the victim’s parents is inscribed on the ground. The focus of the waist-high inner ring is on images of the deceased and inscribed personal reflections provided by their parents; the majority of these are religious in nature. The outer ring includes quotes by students, parents, first responders and some of those who spoke at the groundbreaking. Also included is President Bill Clinton’s comment, by now an almost official spin on such civic traumas: “Even in the midst of tragedy, we’ve seen the best, the best there is to see about our nation and about human nature.” There is no context here: we neither know what happened (specifically what caused these deaths) nor what motivated the unnamed killers. Rather, the focus is on mourning the victims and a triumphal narrative based on the surge of community spirit in a time of civic and in this case national trauma.

Can you explain how President Bill Clinton’s statement that the “Oklahoma City [bombing] made us all Americans again” ties into turning a catastrophic massacre of people into a “victorious tale”?

President Bill Clinton’s statement, “Oklahoma City made us all Americans again” refers to the coming together that typically takes place in the aftermath of tragedy. There is a surge of communal cooperation marked by a general empathy and caring, and a reconsideration of what really matters in life, often in a spiritual context. Eventually at Oklahoma City (and elsewhere), this is transformed into a triumphal narrative, a victorious tale that celebrates the overcoming of tragedy. At Oklahoma City, this progression can be observed in the evolution of anniversary rituals tracked in chapter three of my book.

The tenth anniversary was a week-long celebration, designated as the National Week of Hope that included, among other events, a Festival for the Arts complete with music, art and crafts. There was also a press luncheon and an evening dinner at the Oklahoma Civic Center that inaugurated the annual Reflections of Hope Award intended for “a loving person or group whose extraordinary work had significantly affected a community, state or nation.” In Oklahoma City, the bombing also prompted an economic upturn for the city much lauded in the local and national press. At the time Mayor Mick Cornett commented: “at this point we almost have to remind citizens that we have to be respectful of what happened here with the bombing. It does seem like a long time ago and in a different place.”

Can you expand upon the three stages of the memorial process: immediate, interim and permanent?

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Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11

National memorials have had the effect of obscuring the real causes and victims of events they claim to mark.

Click here now to get the book!

I advocate for three stages in future memorial projects: immediate, interim and permanent. Immediate memorials have become a familiar feature in our urbanscape. Individuals respond to sudden death whether from vehicular accident or terrorist attack by gathering at the site of death and leaving an array of objects ranging from flowers, teddy bears (if children are involved), cards and letters, photographs of the deceased, and the like. These are typical of the kind of things left at tomb stones in burial grounds. Indeed, one could argue that people are creating temporary symbolic cemeteries to serve as places of mourning and gathering — opportunities for people to come together and find some comfort or solace in the presence of others. It also, significantly, gives people something to do at the moment of greatest shock, when there is a deeply felt need to respond in some way. Today many of the objects left at immediate memorials are collected and stored in memorial museums or local historical societies.

There is a significant amount of time between the period of the creation and removal of immediate memorials and when a permanent memorial is built. During this period people, especially victims’ families and friends, need a place to grieve and be together. It is these individuals who should decide what best addresses their overwhelming needs. It might be a space to meet for discussions or just to be with others who have shared this traumatic experience. It might (also) take the form of a built memorial, something created by artists. The “Tribute in Light” proved to be a powerful interim memorial after 9/11 — two beams that shone into the night sky on the anniversary of the attacks for every year until the permanent memorial was built and even thereafter.

Once the permanent memorial is completed (there are ongoing debates about how much time should be allowed to elapse), the interim memorial may continue and eventually may even be incorporated into the built structure, or not. While victims’ families would be valuable advisors for permanent memorials, such structures should ultimately be selected by juries composed primarily of professionals who are knowledgeable about options and are able to take a long view in a way that victims’ families can hardly be expected to do. What is arguably the nation’s most effective memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was chosen by such a jury. Not only were they informed about the various forms memorials might take, they were able to see the potential of a very sketchy proposal by Maya Lin, then still an architectural student at Yale. Had the jury been composed of those without such professional training, this design might never have been selected.

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