Early Americans memorialized triumph not defeat

Posted: Jul 02, 2002 12:00 AM
I just returned from a trip to Boston. We saw Paul Revere heroically mounted upon his horse. We saw Faneuil Hall, cradle of liberty, meticulously restored and still in use as a town meeting place. We visited Lexington and Concord and saw the monument erected to honor the shot heard 'round the world: the first brave resistance to the British tyranny of our long-dead forefathers.

These monuments are no different than many others Americans erected during our first hundred years. Do you notice what they have in common? They commemorate not our losses but our victories. For most of our nation's history, Americans have chosen to freeze in monumental stone our triumphs. Victories, not defeats, were what we chose to remember.

Even the exceptions prove the rule. In San Antonio last week I visited the Alamo, whose 4-foot-thick walls housed first a Catholic mission church and later the fort where Texans fought bravely for their country. They lost, but they were warriors in an ultimately victorious war, not mere crime victims. They died, but not in vain.

When did this change? Was it Vietnam? Was it the Holocaust? What mysterious inner urgings prompted, for example, Bostonians surrounded by glittering monuments to American victories recently to add to their fair city a memorial to the victims of the Irish famine? A few days ago, I passed a bronze statute of a fireman sitting on a Manhattan corner, a gift from an American town. Did they ask the artists to capture the fireman in his moment of bravery, of heroism? No, they chose to depict his grief, on one knee, tears falling.

Why do we get off on grief? When did we learn to enshrine suffering?

Of course it is a perverse testament to the glory of America: For most of human history, loss and grief were the norm. So abundant is American life that it is the moments of loss that stand out. We forget: If all the tortured dead, all the victims of history, were memorialized, there would be no ground upon which the living could walk and breathe and live.

With sadness, I hear Gov. Pataki announce that the footprints of the twin towers the terrorists toppled should be protected forever. The abyss they made will forever replace the towers America built. Rudy Giuliani competes by announcing that not just these two acres but at least nine acres should be left vacant forever, so that we shall never forget the terror they wrought on New York City that fine September morning. Giuliani said, "I think the idea is it has to be the commitment of a vast, huge part of the site."

He also said officials have a duty to remind people of the horrible attack for decades and not let future generations think we "covered it up." Meanwhile, some victims' groups are calling for even bigger memorials. "The families need to realize that the footprints are only two acres, and it's not what the coalition of 9/11 families' position paper (calls for)," said Monica Iken, founder of September's Mission, a family group.

A memorial, yes, for the beloved dead and the heroes who tried in vain to save them. But why allow acts of destruction to overshadow acts of creation that the twin towers represent? The victims did not create the blank space there, in the heart of the greatest American metropolis. Why are we memorializing, forever, the terrorists' hideous triumph?