9/11/11: How to remember

As we have noted, the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks shapes up as a disappointment -– paeans to multiculturalism, peace quilts, and the like. To New York Times critic Edward Rothstein’s important essay on the subject we can now add Professor Wilfred McClay’s “Memorializing September 11th,” featured in the forthcoming issue of National Affairs.

Like Rothstein, Professor McClay notes the ambivalence and ambiguity that suffuses our memorials and commemorations of 9/11. He characterizes the state of affairs as “a national disgrace.” Yet he finds reason for hope amid the intellectual rubble:

There are always reasons to be hopeful about our country, which has a remarkable ability to renew itself. And the greatest good is often done, as William Blake put it, in “minute particulars,” in small but focused ways that individual citizens can manage on their own initiative. Such people retain the capacity to remember, and know instinctively how to keep the flame of memory alive.

My favorite keepers of the September 11th flame are the Freeport Flag Ladies, three Maine women who have for the past ten years kept a simple but profound weekly observance of the event. During their “Tuesday on the Hill,” which takes place each week on Main Street in Freeport, they hold large American flags in remembrance of the events of September 11th and in honor of the service and sacrifice of American troops. They are often joined by others, including military personnel home from Iraq or Afghanistan, or 9/11 family members. Weekly photographs of Tuesdays on the Hill are posted on their web site, along with a special message each week (which is also e-mailed to a list of military families who have signed up) written by Elaine Greene, one of the three ladies. Her message for August 16 of this year offers a sense of the tone and spirit of them all:

What shall we give you as a token
That our support for you will not be broken
We could shatter the heavens with heartfelt song
Of our deep love and gratitude that is so strong.

The ladies also regularly make the two- to three-hour drive to Bangor International Airport or Pease International Airport to greet soldiers who are being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq or are returning from deployments. They present the troops with gifts and take photos of them, which are later shared with them and their families in the form of CDs that the ladies create and mail out every week. They send special packages to combat hospitals, containing neck pillows, clothing, and reading material. In these many ways, they seek to remind the soldiers and their families that there are people in America who care about them and honor them. Their actions form a living memorial, reflecting presence rather than absence [here Professor McClay is alluding to an earlier section of the essay].

The Freeport Flag Ladies probably haven’t read Renan [here Professor McClay is also alluding to an earlier sectino of the essay], but they fully understand his words regarding sacrifice, and the responsibilities imposed by a nation’s grief. They aren’t suffering from gridlock. They aren’t suing anyone; they aren’t demanding that the government subsidize them or compensate them for the income they have had to forego, or for the bowls of chowder they have missed out on during their long drives on those icy roads. They aren’t anti-Muslim bigots. And they aren’t waiting on elite figures in New York or Washington or Cambridge to tell them how September 11th should be most tastefully memorialized by sensitive Americans.

Instead, they took their own steps to observe the tenth anniversary in a big way — importing a piece of steel from the World Trade Center and transforming Freeport into “9/11 Central” for all of Maine. Such keepers do not suffer from ambivalence about the meaning of September 11th, and their love and clarity are both tonic and contagious. New York, and the rest of America, need to find a way to share in their spirit.

Via Bowdoin College Professor Jean Yarbrough, we noted the Freeport Flag Ladies and their plans for commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Many Power Line readers responded to the call to support them in their efforts.

As for Professor McClay’s essay, please print it out, read the whole thing, and email it to your friends.

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