Walking through the UC Berkeley campus late in the day on Sunday, September 11, 2011 I came across two small, temporary, memorials to “9-11” that were both thought provoking and, when viewed in comparison and contrast, expressed quite different reactions to the tragedy a decade ago.
The first was in Memorial Glade where I had taken a campus visitor to see the East Asian Library. There, on a slope of the lawn, was “9-11” spelled out in hundreds of tiny American flags.
There was a lot of embedded symbolism. The top of the “9”, rather than being rounded, was in the shape of a pentagon. The two “1’s” were simple vertical bars (although one was shorter than the other). And the hyphen was formed, also out of tiny flags, in the shape of an airplane flying towards the two towers—the “1’s”.
There was no sign or other display that I could find identifying the creators of this memorial but a woman standing nearby said it had been put up by the Berkeley College Republicans. When I checked later they had nothing on their website regarding this year’s memorial, but they did have a picture of an earlier (2010) display on Memorial Glade in similar form. Further searching revealed that this sort of campus memorial is a favorite of Republican student associations around the country, and had also been done at Berkeley in 2007.
Several minutes later we walked through Sproul Plaza and noticed the second temporary memorial. Hanging from the London Plane trees lining the plaza were strings of carefully folded multi-colored origami cranes. The cranes were clustered a dozen or so to a vertical string, and grouped in strings of three.
At the bottom of each group was a small hanging card that read, “These cranes have been hung by the Nikkei Student Union, the Muslim Student Association, and friends in remembrance of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, and with the hope that the United States would never promote an atmosphere of alienation, suspicion, and fear through institutionalized discrimination, racial profiling, and violation of civil rights.” (“Special thanks to the Cal Origami Club, the Multicultural and Community Center, and Alpha Phi Omega.”).
Elsewhere on campus—and in Memorial Glade and Sproul Plaza as well—numerous trees and light poles had been tied with yellow ribbons. It wasn’t clear if they were associated with one or the other of the memorials, or a third effort entirely.
There were very few people around either memorial when I went by. Perhaps a dozen in Memorial Glade (some napping on the lawn) and a couple of score in Sproul Plaza, most apparently either casual Sunday strollers or students heading to the library or labs.
Some of them—those who did the flags on Memorial Glade—appear to have decided on this tenth anniversary to wave the bloody shirt. The Memorial Glade monument with its evocation of destruction strikes me as a modern “Remember the Maine!” It’s an echo of the Roman envoy promising to wash his stained toga in the blood of the mocking Tarentines or the British resolving to eliminate the humiliation of their First Afghan War.
The others—those who did the cranes—seem to have been trying to frame the anniversary as an opportunity for reflection and a challenge not to fear people in categories because some of one ethnicity or religion did something vicious and horrible.
Given the fact that nearly 70 years ago a sizeable number of Cal students were taken from school by their own government and imprisoned because they had Japanese ancestry, I suppose I would sympathize more with the background message of the crane-makers and less with the flag-setters.
But what was of more interest was simply the fact that the two memorials showed remarkably different reactions to the 9-11 attacks. Remember that most of the students who put together these memorials—of either type—would have been pre-teens on September 11, 2001. Their young adult identity evolved in the endless evocation of war and retribution in the decade since then, but they have arrived at substantially different places as a result.