Politics and Remembrance

Lincoln said in 1863 that those present at the commemoration of Gettysburg must “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” His speech did not only memorialize, it also galvanized—for in November of 1863, America was at war with itself. The North needed a shared cause as much as it needed shared remembrance.

September 11th was not Gettysburg. The soldiers Lincoln eulogized were not civilians; Civil War adversaries were better-defined and perhaps better understood than those in a war of terror. Yet Lincoln borrowed a somber occasion and imposed an argument, that these soldiers died for democracy. Not all of them did; no army is built of unanimous motives. But few today fault him for claiming it nonetheless.

For some reason, though, what we note easily at Gettysburg—that Lincoln’s speech was political, and rightfully so—we refuse to laud in the case of Harvard’s 9/11 vigil. The remembrance of Sept. 11, we pretend, is apolitical.

But a vigil is a political act. I do not mean it serves the interests of a party or a doctrine. Rather, it counters suffering—by insisting that we present have not allowed these dead to go unmarked, and these atrocities to go unresisted. A vigil is built of political human beings, who hold opinions and, by acting on them, hope to attack the sources of suffering. That suffering was deeply political on Sept. 11, 2001, for it was directed at the beating civilian heart of this country and its values. We ignore all of this if we aim for an apolitical dream, made impotent by political correctness.

There has been much discussion of the vigil’s politicism in this publication. One writer echoed the arguments of a Crimson Staff Editorial when he said that “this vigil was primarily about promoting the narrative of rampant Islamophobia after 9/11.” However, Islamophobia was a central theme of none of the speakers and comprised a small fraction of the speeches. Furthermore, Islamophobia is itself a manifestation of the suffering which a vigil presumes to address in the first place.


But even if the dissenters are correct, their critiques of Harvard’s “political vigil” say something about all of us. They remind us that we hunt for culprits among our friends as well as among our enemies. The Crimson Staff Editorial offered the sweeping suspicion that “the Harvard community” (used synonymously with “the day’s organizers”) was deliberately using “the anniversary primarily as a means of decrying post-9/11 discrimination in America and the subsequent foreign policy of the Bush administration.”

If we are to lay blame, let us be precise. “The day’s organizers” who planned the evening vigil were distinct from those who, in facilitating separate intellectual discussions, supposedly insisted upon “their, and Harvard’s, own steadfast commitment to multiculturalism.” The vigil planners included a Harvard assistant dean, four speakers—a scholar of religion, the Chaplain of our University, the Dean of our College, and the daughter of a man who died in the World Trade Center—and a few students. I was one of them, but I speak only for myself.

It is this group that we are accusing of orchestrating an inappropriately political commemoration. If a political agenda exists among the diverse speakers and planners of Harvard’s vigil, I do not know who authored it. But The Crimson editorial staff felt justified in criticizing that “author,” with all the restraint of a negative book review (its title was “Call That a Vigil?”).

The evidence used by critics of the vigil has been imprecise, perhaps because they were trying to critique a unitary agenda that did not exist. The recitation from the Koran was not, as The Crimson staff editorial claimed, “the only religious text read at the vigil.” The University Choir sang from the Hebrew Bible (“Song of Solomon”) and Revelation 14:13. Student Elizabeth Moroney, whose father died on 9/11, did not say that Americans “should have been ‘trying to understand’ the people who attacked us.” She said Americans “should be trying to understand rather than trying to be understood.”

The criticisms of the vigil should remind us that people prefer a locus for their frustration and blame. We like to imagine that someone orchestrated a controversial political stance, instead of acknowledging that these separate speakers responded separately to the injustices they perceived in 9/11. If the speakers were political, it was because of an accurate realization: that all the candles we might burn at an ‘apolitical’ vigil can shed light on nothing but the tears on our faces.

The other thing Lincoln said at Gettysburg is that “[t]he world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what [the dead] did here.” We need not be afraid that any orator’s words can taint our commemoration of the dead. It is for us the living to try to speak, politically when we feel we must.

Daniel A. Gross ’13 is an English concentrator, living in Currier House.