It is always tempting to turn the dead into a symbol, because it allows us to avoid, in some small way, the actual death by focusing on something else. Death means gone, vanished, annihilated: it leaves only a gap in the world, a hole where something -- a human being, endlessly rich in its strange uniqueness -- used to be. Even if you believe in an afterlife, death means that the dead are utterly gone from this world -- the only world we, here, can know.
Symbols are easier. Symbols allow us to mitigate, to some degree, the loss, by focusing on themselves, the reflection which remains, and not the reflected which is gone. Thus we speak of the things, the people, the ideas, the causes, to which people were committed: their work, their ideals, their memories shall live on. It's a form of denial: embracing tasks, beliefs, communities, or stories in the place of the actual human being, who is just dead.
Human beings can't stand meaninglessness, so we make the void mean something. Or we submerge the person to a large whole, and focus on that.
It can be moving. It can be powerful. It can be all that holds us together in the face of simultaneously unbearable and undeniable absence. Let me be clear: I am not saying that it's always wrong. We all do it. It may even be inevitable.
But it is inevitably distorting. Distorting of the dead, who are reduced to a fragment of their real selves, a reflection of a full human being. And distorting of our loss, which is lessened by a focus on things which continue -- ideals, institutions, surviving people, necessary work, memories of those gone -- and not on the actuality of what is not.
One powerful example for me comes by way of Hendrik Hertzberg, who describes the following scene at the recent Yearly Kos convention:
In his closing keynote at the closing session of the convention that will no longer bear his nickname, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga chokes up a bit when he mentions the recent deaths of two longstanding friends and colleagues in developing the liberal blogosphere, Steve Gilliard and Jim Capozzola. He says he had first thought of asking for a moment of silence in their honor. But no, he adds with a sad smile. “We don’t do silence.” The crowd responds with a standing, cheering ovation.It's an incredibly moving moment, even reading about it; I can't imagine what it was like to actually be there. A marvelous affirmation in the face of loss. If I'd been asked to speak, and had had the wit to think of it, I'd have said it to.
But look at what it does. It cheers the living by focusing on what exists, turning away from what is gone. "We don't do silence": an affirmation of the (genuinely quite important, in my view) ethic and importance of the left blogosphere, an affirmation of the work that was (I'm sure quite genuinely) so important to both Steve Gilliard and Jim Capozzola, a call to continue. Rather than a focus on what was gone.
As I said, maybe inevitable. Not always wrong, certainly. But always distorting.
And often we are upset when the dead are (as we see it) distorted. To take another recent example, the blogger Jewish Atheist relates:
Once, I attended a funeral of one of the most loving, cheerful, generous, and entertaining men I'd ever known.... During the eulogies at his funeral, I was dismayed to hear nothing about his kindness, good cheer, or overwhelming generosity. All of the speeches were about how religious he was and how devoted to learning Torah. Those things were also true about him, but they didn't reflect what he was like as a human being and I was sad to know that what had been to me his most unique and affecting qualities were not even related to the enormous crowd that attended.The writer felt that the specificities of his friend (which I have, perhaps wrongly, omitted with an ellipsis) were being distorted: that a real human being was reduced to one aspect, one cause -- learning Torah. And note, again, why: the very real absence of the dead was mitigated for the mourners by drawing their attention to something which would continue to exist -- something which they could themselves do, and thereby (the implication is) lessen the loss, to however small a degree.
But it's not the dead we're remembering. It's their shadows: their outlines, alike in form, different in being a flat patch of shade rather than a real, live person. We look at what remains.
If it's distorting for one person, it's all the more distorting for a group. Any one person, after all, probably did have particular causes, ideals, efforts, things or people to which they were committed; so that to cast our attention that way is at least something of which they might have approved. Since we are all, inevitably, lost in death, we often wish to be remembered for our work, our loves, our struggles, our hopes. So this distortion, in addition to being inevitable, is perhaps welcome. It is, at least, reasonable.
But when we reduce a group, we reduce them to something even more general, even more distorting, than almost any reduction of a single individual. Something that, inevitably, some of them weren't focused on; perhaps something that they didn't even know about.
It is a double distortion, in which the dead vanish even more rapidly than in our normal memorial practices.
So in the best circumstances, now, six years later, most of us would be hardly able to see those lost on September 11, 2001. Not their family, not their friends, not their colleagues; but those of us who didn't know anyone, personally, would have, inevitably, reduced the 2,973 innocents murdered on 9/11 to the shadow of a shadow.
But, of course, the situation is worse than that. The double distortion -- a mass death, a group of human beings dissolved to a mass, and then filtered through the distance of six years -- has itself been radically distorted in the past six years, to the point where I, for one, can hardly see through the haze any more.
I speak, of course, of the political use of 9/11 -- the foul and evil use to which the memories of those 2,973 murdered individuals have been put. The tragically and foully murdered have been hijacked a second time, and become, again, helpless passengers on a death-ride to the slaughter of innocents. For practically since the day they died the malevolent leaders of our benighted country have invoked -- in a slippery way, a way hard to pin down and call for the essential lie that it is -- the memories of those slain six years ago to justify an immoral war, a war of aggression, a crime against peace, against a country that had nothing to do with the murders invoked to justify invading and occupying it.
And, of course, to this very day they are still dishonestly invoked, not only to retroactively justify an unjustifiable war, but to argue for the continuance of the occupation. Our grief is still distorted beyond recognition, and mis-aimed, to justify ongoing death and destruction. Like a plane, meant for travel but turned into an instrument of death, our fear and grief and loss is repurposed into a psychological instrument for the continuation of immoral war
So how, now, are we -- the majority of us, who did not personally know someone who died six years ago in those horrific murders -- to grieve?
How are we to experience the damage done to our country, to our world? After all, even ignoring (as Americans all-too-often do) the hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million or more) of Iraqis who have died due to Bush's war of aggression, even focusing (against the dictates of our common humanity) only on the loss of our fellow citizens, still, more Americans have died in Bush's war than died in the murders which he mendaciously used to justify it. If it's innocent death you want, Bush has caused far more than his share.
How can we now mourn?
I'm not sure we can. -- At least, I'm not sure I can.
I, for one, am not sure I can any longer truly see the event, so overlain it has become in my mind by the foul misappropriation of it. A horror that should have brought us together, to repair and heal the world, has become another tool of immoral violence and fear-tactic politics.
A genuine tragedy has been graffitied with war-mongering propaganda. Deaths have become justifications for more death. Grief has become a slogan, a call for war.
Alas for our country!
We come today to grieve, to remember: and we find that the grave has been defiled. Now, look as we might for a symbol of our loss, all we see are the sprawled symbols of the defilers, those who have so proudly stood upon the missing shadow of two ruined towers, and called for more war.
Six years ago today. I would say "rest in peace", but the words stick in my throat. They are not allowed to rest: and there will be no peace.
Six years ago today. But still the air is too thick with smoke to see it. We should grieve: struggle to remember the real people behind the shadows that are all, inevitably, that we can now see. But all I can do today is choke.