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Remarks by Caryl Emerson
Professor, Slavic Languages and Literatures
Commemorative Assembly, September 11, 2002

Wherever we turn, it seems, to say anything more is already too much. For commemoration is itself an ethical act, along with rites of mourning, and there are few ways to do it that are adequate to the shock and the loss. It is not that we risk to forget -- the awful footage of that day, from every conceivable angle under a brilliant blue sky, has long been part of everyone's inner landscape. But response has been hard. Thoughtful Americans of good will and sound mind continue to disagree radically on the lessons to be learned. Can one pay proper tribute without taking sides? To best survive and rebuild, should we re-confirm ourselves, or alter ourselves, or -- what would seem to be the minimum program -- make an unprecedented effort to see ourselves as other nations might see us, both an irresistible beacon and an unstoppable empire?

There are also questions closer to home. How should local communities such as ours commemorate? One ethical position recommends that memory, like any other form of behavior, should strive to be maximally concrete and particular, in other words, do in your place what only you can do from that place, and then you will have done your part honestly. Last November, Princeton held a roundtable on "Terrorism and War, the Arts and the Humanities" -- because those issues are what we value and do, from our place. There is a sense in which only we, here, can appreciate those dozens of commuter cars that remained unclaimed in the Princeton Junction parking lot on 9/11 and then 9/12. (Last year at this time, I was with my parents in southern Colorado, and managed by some miracle to get a ticket on the first flight to land at Newark Airport after the re-opening of national air space, the Friday after. Everyone was absolutely silent, the sky seemed to be full of ash for miles, but it wasn't until training into the Junction and thinking about those unclaimed cars that the unspeakable horror of it became human and I was able to cry. Those people weren't going into battle. They were going into work.) This intensely "person-by-person" response to the sacrifices of that day has been a trait of the commemorations throughout this past year: from the huge, disorderly mass of messages being left at the "shifting monument" to Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pa.; to the biographies, face-photos and follow-ups on families in The New York Times; to Rudolf Giuliani's launching, this morning at Ground Zero, an alphabetical reading of all those thousands of names. To remember and learn from the pain of an event of this magnitude, are we best equipped to think large, or think small? Are we best equipped to work from the top down, asking large questions of national responsibility, or from the bottom up, accretively, body by body?

In reflecting on these issues, I turned over the summer to that part of the world I've long watched and studied, Russia and Central Europe. Friends there, and emigrants from those lands now living over here, were deeply sympathetic. "I feel sorry for America," one friend told me. "She's not prepared. America doesn't know how to do this." "Doing this" meant a lot of things that had long been familiar to Eastern Europe: not only losing thousands of lives overnight, a horror known to all nations at war, but also being willing to monitor, restrict, screen, and harass your own citizens, all those time-consuming and obstructing rituals that had absorbed so much of the GNP of Communist countries. And specifically, "doing this" meant to endure terrorism in times of peace. Russia was the home of the first letter bomb, as well as the first large-scale use of explosives against a civilian population. "At least" -- my friend added -- "you have the names, you can read out the names."

In a way both palpable and strange, America has become more loved as she has become more resented. Joining the family of nations. Having her sky fall in too. It happened here. The reality of 9/11 brought America closer to the small, powerless, ravished peoples of Eastern Europe, where in the living memory of some villages there is nothing but battlefields and every other generation was lost to violence, and closer as well to that ex-superpower, the imploded former Soviet Union, humiliated beyond all accounting. The big question everyone asks now is: the powerless have few choices -- but can a powerful nation, the most powerful nation, be both firm and wise?

Eastern Europeans tend to be very attentive to anniversaries or "Jubilees," and among the well-meaning advice I have heard is: "Show, don't tell." That seemed awful: we have replayed it so often, it's a narrative that already risks becoming a movie -- a very terrible but still enthralling movie -- and there could only be debasement in that. But in fact something else was meant. "Showing," it turned out, was stopping the story. Or rather, it was paying tribute to those moments that cannot really be imagined in time, cannot be "commemorated" in the sense of "held in the mind." They can only be glimpsed with horror. One such moment surely occurred when those inside realized that there was no time left, no space left, and they jumped; another such moment is still happening every minute among the surviving grieving families and loved ones, uncommemoratible because there is too much time, there is nothing but time, as the big public event breaks up into a million private rages and miseries, the reality of living with an absence for the rest of your life. How do we honor those timeless split-instants and endless aftermaths? Perhaps this is one purpose of a commemorative assembly: to ask forgiveness for our helplessness in addressing this category of experience.

In a just published Princeton University Press book entitled "Evil in Modern Thought," Susan Neiman discusses the immediate impact of 9/11 in terms of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. That monumental symbol of natural terror traumatized the 18th century: a city at work on an ordinary day, seized at random, no warning, no message, collapsed in rubble, then flame, then tidal wave. Where 9/11 was so different, she writes, is that "it was awesomely intentional." In response to intentional acts we are obliged to do more than grieve, as the Book of Job makes eloquently clear. As a nation and as individuals, may we grow into this task.


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