The Silent End of Memorials?
Funding, building, and sustaining memorials seem more a political chore than a civic duty. In their place we have a proliferation of museums. The difference can be startling. A museum is mostly a place for displaying and discussing things; it is often a source for generating income through tickets and merchandise. And with private headsets or tour guides, museums offer lots of sound.
A memorial, on the other hand, is a place for silence. As with temples, sanctuaries, retreats, cemeteries, even libraries, it is a place that draws people with no demand for conversation, speech, or recorded sounds. In a culture such as ours, where noise is ubiquitous and conversationalists are highly prized, such places can be dreadful. Too many of us view silence as tantamount to something having gone awry, a failure to communicate.
For those attending these places, however, silence has a positive force. It creates an opportunity for people of sundry backgrounds to hear little more than murmurs, shuffling of feet, a cough or the din of distant traffic. Most importantly, it is the relative stillness—elusive peace and quiet—that enchants and thus helps people contemplate.
In the case of a memorial, people happen upon one another mostly to engage in muted memories rather than consume information or buy souvenirs. Having the power to evoke a richness of an ambiguous past, a memorial somehow compels people to visit it. (The Vietnam Memorial is a dramatic example.) Individuals might visit a memorial alone, but they often wind up being with others, even though they have little else other than sorrow, curiosity, or a sense of honor in common.
Yet this power is poorly treated today. Consider the recent controversy about a moment of silence in schools. Separationists (of church and state) such as members of the ACLU betray their ignorance by assuming that moments of silence always mean someone is beseeching God. And advocates of religion reveal their arrogance in concluding that these moments are opportunistic rituals for monotheism to sneak into a childs life.
These antagonists trick us into forgetting that the silence can evoke other spiritual realities. Transient visions, lost souls, forgotten emotions, unspoken regrets, and distant dreams are conjured by its power. A memorials silence invariably draws our attention to what was, what could have been, and what will be.
Indeed, a memorial can also draw us outside our myopic patriotism by contemplating all those in foreign lands who have suffered and died in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. In Afghanistan alone, civilian casualties already number in the thousands. Are these not realities that we feel helpless to talk about, but a memorial helps us contemplate?
Only an earnest place for silence will do for those who want to honor the dead. This effort of course directly opposes the fuel of commercial life. As the center of a global economy, the WTC area of New York thrives on notions that money talks, dreams are investments, and emotions are fodder for marketing moguls.
It is no accident that in radio and television stretches of silence are construed as dead time. When there is nothing to sell, promote, or advertise, there is simply nothing. For those attending memorials, or wanting to construct them, this nothing is hardly dead time. It is sparks the life of the memorial.
To obscure the power of silence, then, those seeking to create a memorial for the victims of the World Trade Center attack will have their silence deafened above by the whirring of hovering helicopters, the inane and incessant questioning from nearby news reporters, and the bustling about of garrulous commentators.
In other words, those seeking a memorial hope for a place to give time for the dead. Silent time. Alas, for most of us, dead time.
Dr. Hooke is professor of philosophy at Villa Julie College, Stevenson, MD.
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This story was published on November 9, 2002.