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‘Liberty Oaks’

The case against using plants as monuments.

As we headed toward the Cherry Esplanade at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden so that we could take in one of the great joys of spring in New York—cherry trees in full, glorious bloom—we entered a path between a double row of youngish oak trees that were now beginning to attain the height and fullness that will eventually give them the stately architectural elegance of an allée. I was asking my husband if he remembered how forlorn they had looked as saplings when we noticed a bronze plaque at the foot of a tree just filling in with deep green leaves. It read: “In Memory of the Heroes of Engine Company 280 and Ladder Company 132 Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice On September 11, 2001 In Defense of Their Country,” followed by the names of seven men who were killed. And with that, our delight in the beauty of what was a perfect spring day was interrupted by the presence of September 11.

We were taken off guard, but then we remembered that a number of years ago these oaks had been planted to replace the magnificent allée of old, soaring Norway maples that had been planted by the first generation of Brooklyn Botanic gardeners in 1918 to honor the Armistice and that had sadly come to the end of their natural life spans over 80 years later. In fact, we had arrived at this favorite spot of ours right at the moment when the planting was being done. That was when we learned the rather shocking news that the life span of maple trees did not even outlast the lives of the children and grandchildren of those who planted them as living monuments to the end of World War I, and also that the new trees were meant to honor those who lost their lives on September 11th and were to have the dreadfully politicized name, “Liberty Oaks.”

As we sat down on a bench under an oak tree so we could enjoy the extravagant show of masses of pink and magenta blooms before us, I asked my husband if we had passed any sign that commemorated the Armistice. He didn't think we had. A large cloud had moved right above us and my husband directed my attention to the way the more indirect sunlight was now hitting the yellow centers of a particular heavy cluster of almost spent pale blossoms and made them flicker. It was a subtle and lovely detail, but my mind was still on the bronze memorial plaque. Why, I asked him, did they use the phrase “made the supreme sacrifice” about the firemen? Isn't it usually reserved for soliders? It wasn’t the first time that we wondered about terminology connected with the events of September 11th. The firemen who were killed as they rushed up the staircases carrying all that heavy equipment on their backs, without any concern for their own safety, to rescue people on the higher, burning floors did sacrifice their lives. But it wasn’t exactly “in defense of their country,” as the plaque had claimed. My husband asked me, what should the plaque have said? I didn’t quite know, but still I felt uneasy about the presumed equivalence of the heroic actions of firemen and those of soldiers on the battlefield.

Which made me think about the jubilant crowds who greeted the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination with dancing in the streets last week. With all the recent attacks by Republicans on working people and the middle class, I had been wondering what it would take to get the American people out on the streets, Tahrir Square-style. Good, old-fashioned jingoism was not the answer I had been looking for. But so it appeared to be: We had seen pictures in The New York Times of cheering crowds waving American flags, we read that they chanted “USA! USA!” and that they broke out in patriotic songs. President Obama had declared bin Laden's killing “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” and the crowds who spontaneously gathered in front of the White House, at the World Trade Center, and at Times Square apparently felt as if something “historical” had happened. But it was one thing, my husband and I agreed, for exuberant crowds to celebrate Germany’s unconditional surrender in Times Square—which some reporters claimed was the apt analogy—and quite another for people today to come out to celebrate bin Laden’s killing. Just like the language on the plaque about the firemen seemed to us to reach beyond the reality of what happened so as to bestow something like the valor of war on the firemen's terrible, unexpected, in fact, horrifically accidental deaths—not even the terrorists could have ever imagined that both towers would collapse—it now occurred to us that our fellow citizens celebrating “payback” might be involved in a similar—unconscious? wishful? self-deluded? politically manipulated?—adjustment of reality to experience what was essentially a police action as V.E. Day.

My husband reminded me of our own awful feelings of disorientation, of not knowing what to think or what to do, after the September 11 attacks when we found ourselves drawn almost nightly to Union Square. Something huge, nightmarish, and unprecedented had happened to our city, yet we were without any meaningful public forms to mark our feelings of loss, of grief, and of solidarity. We remembered how that vacuum was quickly filled with an ad-hoc, makeshift memorial at Union Square. First there appeared the seemingly endless, heart-breaking, hand-made flyers with pictures of “the missing” accompanied by grim, police-blotter style descriptions of the loved one’s physical attributes; then came the personal notes, drawings, poems, political broadsides (for and against retaliation) affixed to every open space, often in between the flyers of missing people; on the paths and on the lawns—everywhere—there were candles, burning and melted, every size, color, and description, and stacks of bouquets of lovely autumn flowers, some fresh, some fading, and mementos—American flags, religious icons, peace signs, teddy bears—left by grieving strangers. We saw young people playing guitars and singing folk songs and Buddhist monks chanting and burning incense—a new generation falling back on scenes from the ’60s. We remembered how touching and how pathetic all these gestures felt, that this was the best anyone could devise in the absence of any public forms to help us go on after an action so devastating and unprecedented.

As we spoke, it occurred to me that there has always been something anticlimactic, missing, in these scenes. Our minds are filled with images of what things are supposed to look like, but our experience of September 11 showed us how inadequate these stock images are. My husband and I began to recall how very still that first night was after the World Trade Towers had been hit. We live downtown and were able to walk fairly close to “ground zero.” We saw harshly lit buses packed with firemen, their hair covered in ash, protective masks around their necks, driving slowly away from the site. It was dead quiet where we expected enormous activity and sirens blaring. We remembered how strange it felt to see our neighborhood streets turned into staging areas for ambulances parked three or four vehicles deep. But they were never used and by week’s end they were gone back to all the towns and cities, nearby and faraway, from which they came. My husband remembered the moment when he realized that there were not going to be any survivors, not even any injured people, when he saw a group of doctors still dressed in their surgeons’ green, stethoscopes hanging from their necks, walking, silent and dejected, up the street. Could anything ever set this right?

Capturing bin Laden ten years ago when he was the leader of a dangerous terrorist organization and bringing him to trial for all the deaths and devastation might have done something. But now, ten years later, when our government officials and policy experts repeatedly tell us that he has become a mere figurehead of a ragtag organization—an organization that in any case is not hierarchical but independent cells that answer to no single leader—and that al Qaeda has been made irrelevant by the Arab spring, a so-called footnote to history, what is the point of all of it now, all the deaths of civilians and soldiers, 100,000 still on the ground in Afghanistan, the trillions of dollars expended? And the hideous, soul-corrupting poison of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and “extraordinary rendition,” which has made me ask my husband more than once, what country is it that we are now living in?

But even if bin Laden had been captured ten years ago and brought to justice by trial, it is not clear to me now that justice could have been done. I was thinking of the articles I had read in The New York Times about the reactions of the families of the victims of September 11th. I asked my husband if he remembered the man—I think he was the brother of someone who had unfortunately been on a high floor—who said that justice was a politician’s word, that for him it was all about revenge. And that others spoke about not being able to get any “closure.” One father of a fireman said that the word “should be stricken from the English language,” that the death of bin Laden could not bring back his son. What, I wondered, could? Over the last week we had talked a great deal about the strangeness of these responses, how they did not accord with the way people typically speak when their country is at war. When people at war speak about their personal losses, they say things about the importance of defending their country, their way of life, about noble sacrifice for goods greater than any single individual. It appears that a death in combat is bearable, if that is the right word, only to the extent that it is in the name of something worth fighting and dying for.

What we read in the newspaper instead sounded like the things people say when they hear that the murderer of their wife or husband or child has at last been executed. This, my husband thought, is part of the problem of what terrorist attacks on civilians do. And I couldn’t help thinking that it is made worse by treating the aftermath of September 11 as a war on terrorism, which somehow turns the deaths of ordinary people into war casualties, but leaves their poor families—who sound as if they are still living in the aftermath of a random, senseless, mass murder—without any possibility of “closure.” At that moment, we felt a rather strong breeze, which scattered numbers of pink petals onto the great lawn which the double rows of cherry trees border. We sat for a while without speaking, our attention happily diverted by the beauty of the opalescent pink dots on the shocking lime-green ground.

It was getting late in the afternoon so we decided to continue our walk. As we stood up my husband noticed that there was a small plaque on the bench where we had been sitting: “In loving memory of John Smith (1911-1990) who loved all living things. His family.” And then, as we walked, we discovered others. There was one for a woman who lived from 1910 to 2009 and who was said to have “left her heart in the garden.” Where, I asked my husband, did all these plaques come from? What did they have to do with September 11 and “liberty oaks”? Apparently nothing, so what were they doing here? Once again it felt as if there were a mismatch of things public and private. Still, there was something lovely about these inscriptions. This man, that woman—they loved this garden, these cherry trees, this magnificent esplanade, as we do. They enjoyed spending their days here, perhaps sitting on this very bench in springtime. It would have pleased them to have their name here, their presence felt, their love of the place commemorated. And no doubt it pleased those who loved them to be able to make a lasting spot in the world for them. And yet … I still felt uneasy about privatizing spaces in the allée that used to belong to the Armistice. This is not supposed to be done with grounds consecrated to public monuments. By this time, we had reached the southeast corner of the esplanade and found that the bronze plaque marking the shifting identity of the allée was placed on a small grey boulder:

Liberty Oaks
May 2002 

These scarlet oaks are dedicated
in remembrance of the events of
September 11, 2001
and to those
who lost their lives that day. 

The Norway maples that grew as
the first generation of trees on
this site were planted in
November 1918 to commemorate
the WWI Armistice. 

As we left the garden, I asked a woman at the information booth about the personalized bronze plaques. She gave me a pamphlet on gift-giving to the garden. As we waited for the subway, I read aloud to my husband that “bronze plaques are tributes dedicated for the life of a plant and contain a personal inscription honoring loved ones.” Only for the life of the plant? How, we wondered, could this be? Memorials are supposed to arrest time. Making them dependent on the life span of a plant meant that the memory of the person, not to mention of a particular historical event, was thrown back into the lottery of life spans, which, as the death of the grand 80-year-old Norway maples shockingly revealed, are not as long as we imagine.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tenatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.

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