War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Victim is Hero

April 10, 2011

Make a note in the George Orwell, 1984 collection of historical amnesiac incidents…or is it?

The NYTimes had an article a few days ago about the quotation that is to be prominently inscribed in stone at the 9/11 memorial taking shape below my office window:  “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”  As the writer showed, the text is grotesquely inappropriate, being a line taken out of context that celebrates the memory of two soldiers brutally killed in an ambush.  The Aeneid was not a pastoral!  The line sounds lofty and noble, but do we want to memorialize the deaths of thousands of innocent civilian victims of an atrocity with a line celebrating ancient warrior values? The author of the OpEd piece thinks it is a bit of intellectual laziness, typical of the Internet age, when people snatch quotations off of websites without doing the reading necessary to understand them fully.  Well, nobody reads the classics anymore, so who cares?

As I wrote in my probably-never-to-be-published letter to the Times (but you loyal readers, can get the scoop here!) I suspect something else may be at work here.  We want to remember the victims, but not as victims. That’s too painful:  it reminds us of how unprepared we were, and how vulnerable we can be.  Better to remember them as the first casualties in a heroic war against terror.

This fits with the current overuse of the word “hero” in our popular culture.  Heroes are supposed to be people who choose to face death and danger, but now everyone who dies is a hero.   Rush into a burning building and die trying to save a child – you are a hero.  Killed by a falling timber as you rush in a panic out of a burning building, you’re a hero too!  People terrified by death who just couldn’t escape:  they don’t exist.  We all know what we are doing, and we are all heroes.  So nobody is a hero in the end…


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