Saturday, September 11, 2004

Whose Tragedy is it Anyway?

Here is a letter to the editor I wrote to my (undergraduate) alma mater's newspaper regarding an on-campus commemoration in 2002 of the September 11th attacks. Perhaps there's something in it we can be reminded of again:
Although I fully support commemorating the events of September 11, 2001, and its victims, I have to respond to [your] casual use of 3,000 American flags to do so. Inappropriate is the symbol that does not point to the reality behind that symbol. Worse is any attempt to whitewash and distort that reality. I hope that in this case it is the former.

If we are sincerely commemorating the victims of the attacks, would it not be appropriate instead to acknowledge that almost one-sixth of the victims were not citizens of the United States? Why efface the nationality of almost 500 people? To lose one’s life one year in such a horrible event and then one’s nationality—albeit “symbolically”—a year later amounts to little more than revictimization. Could not a more meaningful yet less specific symbol have been found to embrace each individual we wish to memorialize?

The great tragedy of the attacks was the indiscriminate destruction of so many individuals. Let us not become complacent a year later and merely rely on the all-too-easy symbol of the American flag to give our exercise of grief ready-made meaning.
Almost immediately after the attacks, I began receiving emails and phone calls from all over the world, and I live a thousand miles away from the nearest attack! I'm glad I didn't know anyone flying that morning or working in southern New York City or at the Pentagon. For whatever reason, I became a bit obsessed with the workers of a Japanese firm. What were their families going through when as they were preparing to go to bed in Japan they heard the news of the first plane hitting?

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