Friday, September 16, 2011

9/11 10.0 in Amherst

As any one who reads the local blogs and papers (and well, yes, sometimes even just the national media) knows, Amherst has had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the at times awkwardly entangled complex of phenomena involving flags, patriotism, and the military. In part by chance, September 11 has come to be a focus of that tension.

Fortunately, this year the tension seemed to subside, and we by and large seemed at one with the rest of the country in focusing on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Residents had a variety of commemorations from which to choose.

Along with fellow Select Board members Stephanie O’Keeffe, Alisa Brewer, and Diana Stein, Acting Town Manager (and Director of Conservation and Development) David Ziomek and Veterans’ Agent Steve Connor, I attended the official ceremony on the Common in the early afternoon. At our last Select Board meeting, we voted to endorse a request from Senator Frank Lautenberg to join in a national movement of commemoration, which entailed issuing a proclamation recognizing a Moment of Remembrance, and arranging for the corresponding tolling of bells or similar calls to attention and contemplation at 1:00 p.m.

A day that had begun with glorious sunshine (as can be seen in these photos from Larry Kelley's blog) had begun to turn overcast by the time that we started to assemble after 12:30. Still, the flags everywhere (permitted to be displayed again this year) stood out, even against graying skies. Along with the “official” flags on poles and lampposts, there were dozens of smaller ones, stuck in lawns or planters: the work of UMass Republicans and Democrats coming together in a rare moment of cooperation.

Members of the Amherst Police and Fire Departments as well as University of Massachusetts Police lined up in two formations at right angles to one another in the parking lot at the north end of the Common (where the "Merry Maple" winter celebration and similar events take place). It is not an intrinsically inspiring space, so it is a tribute to the mood of the event that one forgot one was standing on or near degraded asphalt striped with lines for parking spaces. Eventually, a fire truck and ambulance also made their way, backwards, into the parking lot (purpose not exactly clear; there seems to be some solemn significance attached to the mere presence of such vehicles).

The theme of the day proved to be in part commemorating the dead, but in equal measure, highlighting the spirit of unity and communal solidarity, and honoring special service to that community: on the part of first responders to the disasters and the military forces overseas, but also of the public safety officers who work in our midst and on our behalf day in and day out.

Firefighter David Dion called the assembled public safety officers to attention to begin the event.

Public safety officers at parade rest
Select Board Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe then formally opened the ceremony with words of welcome and exhortation. As she put it, the devastating attacks deprived us of our security and illusions in one blow: “We mourned for our feelings of invincibility, left devastated like those magnificent towers.  And we mourned for our lost innocence.” At the same time, however, they gave us a new sense of unity, purpose, and determination.
“In our collective grief, something amazing happened.  We opened our eyes.  We recognized just how precious is every person and every moment.  We recognized how truly connected all of us are.  We recognized with wholehearted clarity how indebted we are to those who protect us. . . .”
We came to appreciate “heroism," but also, “to savor simple moments, joyful or tranquil, thrilling or calm.” The very disruption of the daily routine made us cherish its humble pleasures all the more. [full text here]

Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, Fire Dept. Chaplain Bruce Barbour, Fire Dept. Chief Tim Nelson
We observed a moment of silence, followed by the tolling of the bells at nearby Grace Episcopal Church.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone spoke next, expressing his gratitude to both the armed forces and the police, and singling out for attention members of our public safety team who also serve in the military.
Police Chief Scott Livingstone speaking
The Fire Department Chief elaborated on this theme. As summarized by Stephanie O’Keeffe:
Fire Chief Tim Nelson spoke about the loss of life on that day, and the appreciation for those who put themselves in harm's way, who heed the call to serve and protect, and who sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice.  He spoke of the special flags at each fire station representing the firefighters who are serving on active military duty, and how this helps to remind us of their service.
He also explained the fire department tradition of using bells to convey messages. A sequence of three sets of five rings once signaled the safe return of a unit. Eventually, this “Tolling of the Bell” came to announce the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, marking the final “return.” That gentle ritual, enacted here, was the centerpiece of the commemoration.

Fire Department Chaplain Bruce Barbour then offered a prayer on behalf of the dead and their survivors. Speaking without reference to any particular faith, or even any mention of a deity, aside from a reference to "light," he asked those assembled to remember the victims, but also the living: the families and other relatives whose lives were forever changed and who continue to need our support.

The ceremony closed with the now-traditional playing of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

It was a disciplined and dignified ceremony.

To be sure, I wish that more people had attended. There were perhaps 50 present: friends and relatives of public safety officers, ordinary citizens, a few Town Meeting members, and some people who strolled over after the services at Grace Church. Admittedly, although the event was described in a recent issue of the Gazette and posted on the Town website, it may not have been publicized as fully as it needed to be.

In any case, a good many people, out for a stroll or an errand on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, simply went about their business, walking by without stopping to listen or even paying attention.

Notably absent were most of our politically more active residents, aside from the members of the weekly Peace Vigil, who quietly held their signs in their customary place and stood respectfully but did not take part in the commemorative event. On another corner was a lone protester, silently accusing.

There was moreover no official—or for that matter, other—representation from the college or university administrations: presumably because two of the three institutions held their own ceremonies (as noted, University Police did take part). Perhaps for that reason, faculty and students were likewise nowhere to be seen.

Equally puzzling was the absence of the local press, with the exception of intrepid Collegian reporter William Perkins. Puzzling, the more so, as the Gazette for some reason found it worthwhile to attend and publish a color photo of the "interfaith" event in Grace Church from the afternoon.

Admittedly, that grandly named gathering dedicated to “Memory, Healing, and Hope” attracted a much larger crowd (though the reporters who failed to show up three hours earlier could not necessarily have known that in advance). In retrospect, that’s not surprising. To begin with, it could draw on a set of ready-made constituencies. Above and beyond that, though, I suspect that it simply allowed people to remain in their comfort zone. There is something easy and affirming about listening to common pieties and treating murder and warfare in the larger and safer context of the unexceptionable desire for peace and brotherhood.

A ceremony—even a "solemn" "low-key and reverent" one, as Chief Nelson described it to the Gazette a few days in advance—dedicated specifically to commemorating victims of terrorism and honoring members of the military and public safety forces, may have seemed just too direct a confrontation with painful and complicated realities. Better the church, the songs, and the candles.

A final commemoration, held after nightfall, focused even more sharply on those thornier issues, attracting a small but attentive audience.

As they have on key past anniversaries, Larry Kelley and Kevin Joy organized a a gathering on behalf of their "Remember 9/11" Committee.

With help from the Fire Department, they had mounted a huge United States flag between two trees on the west side of the Common, forming a backdrop for a small commemoration of the tragedy of 9-11 originally used in a Fourth of July parade: twin metal towers, set in a pentagonal base on which are scattered shoes, thus representing the dead of all four planes on that fateful morning. In front of it, from 9 p.m. to midnight, were vertically aimed spotlights, imitating the iconic but transient early tribute to the absence of the twin towers. Although the organizers did not anticipate it, the lights, even directed upward, at the same time projected the shadows of the model towers onto the American flag, in front of which stood a group of veterans.

Early in the ceremony, a fire truck and police cruiser turned on their emergency lights, adding a more colorful glow to the scene, and conjuring up disturbing echoes of the chaos at "ground zero."

Kevin Joy began by likening 9-11 to Pearl Harbor. A former FBI agent, he spoke about the losses in his own circle of friends: one who died at the Pentagon, and another at the World Trade Center. The latter was John P. O'Neill, who, as an FBI agent, spent years warning of the danger of Al Qaeda attacks on US sites. He took over as head of security at the World Trade Center just a week before the attacks, and he died on that day, trying to bring others to safety. Many of us know his story from the "Frontline" documentary, "The Man Who Knew," and the miniseries, "The Path to 9/11."

For his part, Larry Kelley rehearsed the story of his intense commitment to the commemoration of the attacks, from  the unfortunately timed Amherst controversy over display of the flag on the eve of the attacks to his taking an American flag from Amherst to raise over the "ground zero" cite (he also tells it here).

Many of the speakers located 9-11, along with the Kennedy assassinations and the space shuttle "Challenger" disaster, in a constellation of tragic events that caused almost everyone of the baby boom generation to be able to say, "I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news." Vietnam veteran Kevin English was a case in point. He spoke at length and with both emotion and precision about his own experiences, beginning with the sudden instruction, one day in the Springfield Cathedral school in November 1963, that the class was to pray.  A few years later, English was a Marine in Vietnam, one of a dwindling number of troops pinned down in the old imperial city of Hue during the Tet offensive. He recalled how their spirits were buoyed when they managed to raise an American flag during the battle. The trauma of that conflict and the seeming lack of comprehension of that experience on the part of both contemporaries and subsequent generations made him sensitive to the need to remember the victims of the 9-11 attacks and the value of freedom.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, sporting an American flag tie, spoke about the need to remember individuals as well as our collective tragedy. Unlike many other speakers on this weekend, he also spoke explicitly of the perpetrators. He referred to "evil"--a word that I doubt cropped up in the interfaith church service, even though it is of course at the core of Christian theology, and part and parcel of religion's general attempt to make sense of human nature and the human condition.

Understandably, actions that we regard as evil can provoke a strong reaction, even excess. Addressing that issue, English noted that he had come to find benefit in the power of prayer. The first reaction to danger, fear, and injury, he said, is anger and the desire for revenge. Today, prayer helps him to come to terms with those feelings and to seek, in what he called a higher power, the sources of goodness and kindness to others.

No comments: