When the loudspeaker interrupted the Muzac version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I was standing in front of the cooking oil.
“Attention, Shaws shoppers,” a nasal woman said, her voice crackling. “In honor of the heroes of September 11, 2001, the Porter Square Shaws will now observe a thirty-second moment of silence.”
And so we stood there, we Shaws shoppers—I clutching my Duncan Hines cake mix, and the woman beside me her Minute rice—in an eerie, Muzac-free silence. I tried to think of the heroes of Sept. 11, but the golden ranks of cooking oil had impressed themselves on my imagination and all I could muster was a profane and tedious mantra: Canola? Corn? Vegetable? Finally the nasal woman thanked us and told us we might continue shopping. Carts whirred back to life to the gentle strains of Muzac. The moment of silence had elapsed as irreverently as most do.
Moments of silence have been so widely observed in the wake of Sept. 11—newspapers from the Anchorage Daily News to the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record recorded area moments of silence on the first anniversary of the attacks—that it is instructive to investigate the origins of the phrase. The first recorded use of “moment of silence,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes, was in 1942, when the American Sociological Review resolved to “express our regret and honor their memory by rising and preserving a moment of silence.” Whose memory, the venerable OED doesn’t say; there are space constraints. But clearly, the phrase came into vogue when school prayer was disallowed; the OED’s next citation is from a 1962 article in the Washington Post: “A moment of silence...Would it be possible and acceptable to have each school day commence with a quiet moment that would still the tumult of the playground and start a day of study?” Enforced moments of silence have enjoyed popularity as a sort of ersatz school prayer ever after: A recent Oklahoma law mandates a daily moment of silence in all public schools.
It is this regular scholastic observation of moments of silence that is partially responsible for the profanation of memorial moments of silence. If you fashion spitballs or play covert games of solitaire tic-tac-toe during most moments of silence, it is difficult to muster deeply-felt feelings for exceptional ones. You are desensitized to whatever symbolic weight a moment of silence might once have had.
The other problem with moments of silence, though, is that they are a symptom of our increasingly disjointed society. Our shared grief ought to unite us; it ought to inspire public figures to compose speeches of simple eloquence. But it is difficult to come together, and it is difficult to express grief as gracefully as Lincoln did at Gettysburg. It is far easier (and far worse) to nurse our individual grief, far easier (and far worse) to declare our grief unspeakable and to invite us instead to observe moments of silence.
After nightfall on the first anniversary of Sept. 11, I went to a candlelight vigil at the Weeks footbridge. Because a cold front was pushing summer air out to sea, it was windy. My candle guttered in its paper cup and dripped hot wax all over my shoes. Most people had green glowsticks, and, solemn and eerily illuminated, we all encircled a bagpiper who was squeezing out an asthmatic rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It looked like a rave party staged by Fellini.
The bagpiper paused, and someone asked us to all observe a moment of silence. There was a lot of throat-clearing and jostling. Someone giggled. My candle blew out and someone else, sotto voce, offered to relight it. After a while the bagpiper started up again. He was wheezing “America the Beautiful” in a stumbling meter. It is a song that was played ad nauseum in the weeks after Sept. 11—a song that was substituted for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch of professional baseball games. It was easier than thinking of a new way to express our grief after all of this time, and easier than remaining silent, to let Katherine Lee Bates speak for us yet again.
All around me, in the dark, people began to sing. We sang tentatively, the same verse over and over because very few people know the second verse that starts, “Oh beautiful, for pilgrim feet.” Mostly together, and together falling short of the high notes, we expressed our grief in a musical moment of silence: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee, And crown thy good, With brotherhood, From sea to shining sea.”
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.