There are a number of misconceptions I’d like to clear up right off the bat. First of all, there was not a group of “unidentified people” who rearranged the flags of the 9/11 display. Neither was the act done covertly. There was one person: it was me. People stopped to ask what I was doing all the while I was rearranging the flags, and I explained to each of them what I was spelling out, and why, in detail. Not one person tried to stop me, or even suggested that what I was doing was in bad taste. Possibly none of them wanted to start a confrontation, and so they all walked away thinking nasty thoughts at me. Possibly, none of them really cared. However, there’s a slight chance that my explanation was part of the reason that no one stopped me, and on those grounds, now that my actions have been condemned, I would like to share my rationale with the Brandeis community.
What is a memorial? What does mourning look like? At some level, we all know the answer. It’s not sales on Memorial Day or a few flags flown at half-staff on the anniversary of 9/11, and it’s certainly not a bunch of plastic flags shoved into the ground and then immediately discarded in the trash.
There is exactly one time when putting the flag at half-staff or shoving a few flags into the ground is appropriate, and that is when there is not time for anything else. When the president dies, when a national tragedy strikes, when we are all mourning and no one has time to do it right: Then lower the flag, shove party favors into the Great Lawn, do anything and everything you can, because nothing will be enough.
But to do the same today, 14 years after the fact, when we have the time, when we can honor these people right, is beyond insulting.
In Judaism, some people have the custom of tearing their clothing upon hearing of the death of a relative. It’s a spur-of-the-moment act, it’s an anguished cry made physical, it’s lowering a flag because you can’t do anything else. What would you think of memorializing a relative’s death every year by quickly snipping a piece of cloth once, and then immediately going about your day without a second thought? That’s not mourning, and neither is this.
So why do people keep insisting that it is?
Well, it had better be, hadn’t it? Because if the cheap displays of patriotism people make around 9/11 aren’t honoring the dead, then they’re using the dead. Because if we recognize this memorial for what it was, namely five students with political agendas setting up an insultingly empty display, then we need to think about why some people want to memorialize 9/11, but don’t care enough about the actual victims to see them as anything more than a number and a bunch of flags.
To those who say I politicized an apolitical space, reexamine your motives and your actions. This memorial was never apolitical. It was barely a memorial at all. If you can cheapen the lives and deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans to a handful of flags, probably set up in 10 minutes and trashed even more quickly, then I see no reason why I shouldn’t have used those same flags to say that we started a war for nothing, that drone strikes aren’t justified, that the Uyghurs we tortured and raped in Guantánamo were people and that the invasions of the privacy of our own citizens were senseless and immoral. Because at least that means something, rather than the actual display, which meant nothing at all.
Lives are more than flags. It’s about time we treated them that way.