More than just a physiological function, memory has its moral injunctions, as well. To remember–the word is derived from the Latin word rememorari, “to be mindful of”–enjoins us not to forget, not to let slip into oblivion, but to maintain a space in our thoughts for the presence of something, or someone. This space can range from celebrating the 4th of July to solemnly vowing before the gates of Auschwitz, “Never again.” At the same time, the word connotes the opposite of dis-member, implying that the act of memory is also an act of reconstruction, of piecing together again, of making what is now broken, or perhaps dissipated, whole again.
Traditionally, war memorials serve this purpose. Not the celebrations of victory–the Iwo Jima statue, for example, or Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza–but rather the more somber monuments, like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, or photographs of Khmer Rouge victims displayed in the former detention center of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia. These momuments in particular combine the injunctions not to forget, of “Never again,” with a yearning to somehow conjure the missing, imagine their presence, be cognizant of their names, or at least their human form. In short, to put together, re-create, re-cognize and re-member the dead.
How to do this in our current war? How do we memorialize not the soldiers fallen in battles from Kandahar to Mosul, but the estimated 20,000 civilians a year murdered in airliners, skycrapers, buses, nightclubs, train stations, in their homes, in traffic, on the street? As I wrote in In the Red Zone, one of the most obscene aspects of terrorism is that it induces us to turn our face from mourning the victims for fear of confronting the depravity that killed them. We comfort ourselves with the belief that terrorism is not evil but a reasonable, if extreme, response to the evil we have inflicted upon others. At the same time, we mourn the loss of our soldiers through a morose and psychologically suspect obsession with mortality counts–while the death toll of civilians slaughtered by terrorist continues to mount, untallied.
Some people want to change this. In the March 20th New York Times, Glenn Collins writes of how many families of those killed on 9-11 are reaching out “to make common cause with thousands of other international victims, not only to foster mutual support, but also to discredit global terrorism itself.” Through this communal act of remembering, of “being mindful of” the dead, “they hope to challenge the terrorists’ attempts to stereotype vicims as infidels, capitalist tools or ciphers lacking humanity” and make it “more embarrassing, or even impossible, to romanticize or legitimize terrorist acts.” Or, as Mr. Collins writes,
Some in victims’ groups said they hoped they could help stop what they see as the news media’s fascination with terrorists, who, they charged, are rewarded with attention for their attacks.
Last February, the second International Congress of Victims of Terrorism met in Bogota, Colombia. Here, Collins tells us, four member of 9-11 Families groups, in addition to representatives from Oklahoma City bombing victims organizations–spoke at a conference “attended by those who experienced terrorist attacks in Colombia, Indonesia, Israel, Spain, Northern Ireland, Chile, Argentina and Beslan, Russia.”
“There is no good terrorism or bad terrorism,” Collins quotes William Frazier, director of the Northern Ireland-based Families Acting for Innocent Relatives. “The activity itself must be labelled despicable; it is only about death.”
A movement to de-legitimize terrorism by focusing on the identities of those extinguished by its obscenity will take time to develop, of course, and will follow whatever organic channels and internal structures of growth such a meme requires. The internet, this powerful tool of global consciousness, can help, however—if in no other way than insuring that marches, such as the one which took place on March 24 in Baghdad receive more than this paltry notice. Like all evil, terrorism thrives by turning human beings into objects, things, devoid of individuality and soul. Memory is but a consolation for the presence of loved ones who have been lost, but it can, at least, insure that the terrorists will not have the final claim on their legacy. Memory re-claims, as well.
I write this on Holy Saturday. For Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, this day falls close to their commemoration of divine sacrifice, Ashura. In both cases, men obedient to God were mutilated by ignorance and moral blindness. Centuries later, we still re-member these men, performing in our minds the miracle of re-creation that Muslims see manifested in the living power of their faith and that Christians believe actually occurred in Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago. The lesson is the same, either way: to remember is to re-claim, re-store, make whole again. It is the path not of insurrection, but–at least in the realm of the spirit–re-surrection.