Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Memorial controversies are back in the news. This AP story, "Small cities struggle to pay for 9/11 memorials", relates how local governments in several states, sometimes with no personal connections to 9/11 victims or responders started out to build memorials but now find themselves in the lurch since the economy went south. This on the heels of the debates and lawsuits about the "cross" going into the Ground Zero memorial in New York and the mosque being built nearly adjacent to the WTC site.

It seems to me that sometimes memorials like this cause more trouble and hard feelings than serve their ostensible purpose, which is to keep alive and present the memory of people who have died in service of the country or as a result of a natural or man-made disaster or tragedy. 

While this is a noble goal we seem unable to undertake memorial building without having it become an exercise in controversy and mollification. 

Thinking back to the Vietnam War Memorial project in Washington, DC, I remember several controversies. The first regarded the fact that an Asian artist, Maya Lin, won the design competition. This apparently upset some veterans who felt that this was an "insult" to those who died in Southeast Asia. The second issue was that the original design did not have any statues of people in it. This was also found wanting by critics. So the Three Soldiers statue was added later in the process. And then of course, a third debate ensued about what races or ethnicities were to be represented by the statues. This is how there came to be three soldiers, one African-looking, one caucasian-looking and one Hispanic-looking (and lest it be overlooked, no Asian-looking). Finally, a Women's Memorial was proposed and added, which itself went through a controversy about the initial design being a political statement. The Wikipedia entry on the memorial details all of this.

Memorials can serve a purpose of remembrance, surely. But they can also perpetuate grudges that are sometimes better forgotten and in their mere undertaking bring ethnic, racial, religious and political animosity to the surface that otherwise might have never arisen. The last thing we need in our country now is more division. Everyone wants a memorial now. Perhaps if they were all abstract representations with no individuals or groups specifically identified, maybe they could fulfill their purpose of uniting us in remembrance not dividing us in gratuitous difference-seeking.


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