Here in New York, we’ve just passed the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Last year, of course, was the 10th anniversary of that horrible day, and there were many public events and services to note that milestone. But I wasn’t sure what we might experience on Tuesday, September 11, 2012 more than 4,000 days after that fateful moment that changed America.
One especially moving part of the services could be found on television and on line—the individual reading of the names of those lost that day. As readers may know, the names are divided into small groups of a dozen or so and read by a family member or loved one who is lost. The declaration commences in a deliberate fashion, with each name carefully and respectfully enunciated.
As I watched this ritual a few weeks ago, I realized that this emphasis on individuals lost to some catastrophe is a somewhat new phenomenon. My memory went back to the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial as the first vast recognition of the particular people lost in a conflict. Maya Lin’s design—the now famous granite behemoth that begins and ends with a single name—was quite controversial compared to more convential statues and monuments of earlier wars. Among the innovations of that monument was the notion that individuals and chronology mattered. Names were not listed in alphabetical order, but were placed in the order in which souls were lost. By listing individuals, the Vietnam Memorial has created a unique public memorial where relatives of the dead have a particular spot, a point, a marker, on which to focus their grief. By now, we are all familiar with the very personalized offerings that visitors will leave at the panel where their loved one is listed.
We saw the same sort of attention to the individual in the memorial to note the Oklahoma City bombing. There is an individual chair at the memorial, for ever person who was killed. The World Trade Center Memorial incorporated the same sentiment in its outstanding design as pictured above.
As I thought about these memorials, my mind went back to another memorial that seemed to incorporate the same emphasis on the individual humanity lost: The Names Project/AIDS Memorial Quit. Back in the day when the news of a positive HIV status was akin to a gruesome death sentence…..and one that included terrific social alienation and shunning, the families of those who died of the disease created individual panels that represented their loved one, all to be stitched together and draped across the Mall in Washington, D.C.
There’s no doubt that our culture seems increasingly driven by narcicism and the cult of the individual, but in the case of these memorials, I came away feeling like these sorts of memorials were exponentially more cathartic for those who’d lost loved ones but that it also personalized the remembrance experience for all of us. So, I’ve come to expect that for the remainder of my life time in New York City, I will hear those thousands of names read individually on every September 11 from here on out.