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Saturday, September 10

Thoughts on Hallowed Ground & Unlearned Lessons

My friend and fellow Chicago History Book Club member, Patrick Reardon @PatrickReardon, had this Op-Ed piece published in the Chicago Tribune yesterday.
Hallowed Ground 
So much of American life is about competition. It's natural that we would want to know which sacred ground — which hallowed ground — is in first place.  
I like the article, and in a gentle way, it makes a valid point. As I thought about it further, I felt that it was perhaps too genteel in its tack. I wonder if we haven't gone off the rails completely by presuming to consecrate any ground.
As a person who is not religious, spiritual maybe, but not religious, this kinda thinking has always confused me. Is a place where a person died somehow sacred or worthy of veneration just because a person died there (Mom's bedroom, Dillinger's Alley)? Or must the person have some sort of recognized noteworthiness before it elevates to that (Syd and Nancy's room at the Chelsea, Belushi's bungalow, The Ford Theater, though Abe didn't die there)? Does the ground become sacred when more than one person dies there no matter their notability (The Triangle Fire)? If the person dies in some sort of attack, does that kick it up to hallowed level (street robbery gone bad, Unabomber pipe bomb, anthrax attack)? Does the attack have to come as an act of war (Atlanta, Pearl Harbor, Prague, the phone exchange in Baghdad, Kohbar Towers, Beirut Marine barracks, homes shelled by US Navy prior to Beirut barracks bombing, Hiroshima)? How about a field of war where both sides were combatants (Antietam, Agincourt, Omaha Beach)?

If there were a God, would (s)he see any of these deaths as more or less worthy of veneration? If so, would (s)he find any of these locations more holy than the previous and why? I have a hard time nailing this phenomenon down, but sometimes it feels to me like we, especially Americans, make some of these otherwise unnecessary distinctions simply because they allow us to transfer some sort of emotion to The Place that some of us feel like we need and don't get elsewhere...a sort of groupthink chosen avenue for catharsis of our Fear.

I get that for a few minutes we may have lost some national innocence with this attack; however, it started to feel to me rather quickly that the national soul searching for our proper, measured, more harnonious place on this planet (the Why?) was replaced–baited and switched really–with this misdirected, maybe undirected, cathartic outpouring of Fear-driven rage at The Other. The nuclear armed, American Shadow was released onto the world and continues to roam it freely, crushing anything large and small that attracts its attention. Our fascination with this "Hallowed Ground" feels to me to be at or near the root. The "memorial" that has been going on for ten days now, and will likely continue for another week, almost feels like a calculated celebration of our loss, as a way to rekindle those feelings of Fear-driven anger.

At my least cynical, it feels to me like the national equivalent of a good, post-breakup, self-pity wallowing bender. I wonder how many dead soldiers would want us to take a week feeling crappy about ourselves, reliving and rehashing our national and personal traumas, rather than being American and building something positive and lasting in the world? That endeavor would seem to me a better use of our personal and national energy than what is inevitably turning into a ten day, twenty-four hour media feast of grief.

I am not saying we should forget.

We rightfully remember Pearl Harbor Day. We should acknowledge our shared trauma, but if I had been brutally assaulted, even remembering the attempted murder of my brother, the last thing I think I would want to do was relive that trauma, blow by blow, for a week, a day, or even an hour. I would not be able to forget, indeed I have not forgotten what happened to my brother, but I feel no need to replay and relive that any more than my brain forces upon me. More appropriate seems a brief, sixty second national pause at a given time on that day, and then we get back to doing something–anything.

On a different note, did prior civilizations honor their defeats and disasters? Do other nations now? I know Japan has 6 August Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, but their memorial is much more about remembering the horrors of nuclear war and calling for nuclear disarmament, peace, than anything else. It seems that there is a lesson from that atrocity that the Japanese feel they have learned and would like for the rest of the world to learn and remember with them. Have we? It seems like a window into that space may have been given us ten years ago but was squandered.

I wonder what is the lesson that we might have learned from 9/11, and maybe what lesson did we think we learned? It feels like the only thing we learned was that we got outfoxed–and many deep thinking conspiracy minded folk even doubt that–and thus need to crush stuff, spend a lot of money doing it to the detriment of our other national necessities, and wait in line at the airport.

I would especially welcome feedback from those who have fought for our country, from those who have had a loved one fighting or lost someone fighting, or from those who lost a loved one in tragedy.

Sorry this was so long. I stand ready for whatever flames may come and apologize in advance for any feelings harmed or feathers ruffled.


  1. Patrick ---

    You are certainly right. Sacredness -- hallowedness --- isn't limited to places where blood have spilled.

    Think of Hull House. That was a pretty sacred place in terms of the great work that was done there, but the site hasn't been given much respect. Most of the buildings were razed, and the one or two remaining were moved.

    By contrast, the battlefield at Little Big Horn has been well preserved although the argument could be made that Custer died because of his own error.

    Be that as it may, I'd expand on the point I made in the op-ed piece. A place can be sacred if blood was spilled there or if something significant happened there lacking any violence.

    One sacred place should not be thought of a "more" sacred than another.

    Patrick T. Reardon

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