Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Things I've given up on

One of the things I've given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime is a decent memorial of the 9/11 atrocities. Mark Steyn wrote a depressing update on the 'Circle of Embrace' so-called 'memorial' to the passengers and crew of Flight 93. I agree with the quote from James Lileks:
If 9/11 had really changed us, there’d be a 150-story building on the site of the World Trade Center today. It would have a classical memorial in the plaza with allegorical figures representing Sorrow and Resolve, and a fountain watched over by stern stone eagles. Instead there’s a pit, and arguments over the usual muted dolorous abstraction approved by the National Association of Grief Counselors. The Empire State Building took 18 months to build. During the Depression. We could do that again, but we don’t. And we don’t seem interested in asking why.

I was interested to read of The Tottenham Outrage, almost a miniature scale prefiguring of the same sort of chaos and murder exploding upon a prosaic, peaceful society going about its unremarkable business on an unremarkable day, and recorded by G.K. Chesterton almost exactly 100 years ago:
If anything could startle the modern mind into simplicity upon any subject, and especially on the subject of crime and punishment, it might, I think, be the affair of the two Russians who left a trail of blood through the astonished suburb of Tottenham... Here were two men, confident in their strength, skill, and weapons, who undertook not only to defeat Society, but to destroy Society, or as much of it as they could. And here were ordinary citizens, aided by comparatively few even of the official police, who vigorously expressed the refusal of Society to be destroyed if it could help it. The thing was a reality; both sides ran risks for the realisation of the idea. The criminals would rather be killed than caught; and the ordinary respectable citizens would rather be killed than not catch them....
It's a smaller, slower version of our world today - the people were wearing different clothes, their jobs were more physical and took longer, their amusements were simpler, but the pattern is already there. We are closer to those people in 1909 than they were to their predecessors in 1809. The bones of modernity are already formed: a society that's been civilized long enough to operate smoothly because its members trust each other enough not to suspect attack. An official police force that's small and nearly invisible in daily life, because society can largely police itself. A largely unarmed populace which has been safe for so long, it takes physical safety for granted, and is unprepared for violent attack by a ruthless, determined, alien force. Oh, and we share something else too:
In certain energetic but rude societies--such as that of the Middle Ages,and that of California until very recently--men were hanged for stealing. It is a thing to be improved as quickly as possible, but it is a thing to be understood before it is improved. But with us an ordinary humanitarian means a man who does not realise that it is a nuisance to be robbed. And an ordinary judge means a man who does not realisethat it is even more of a nuisance to be hanged. We have long lost sight of the actual fundamental human situation which makes a savage crime possible or a cruel punishment conceivable. That fundamental human situation did leap into existence at Tottenham.
We also have these moral dilettantes, who have never known evil as anything more than a word in a book. And 7 years after 9/11, they are as convinced of their superior sensitivity and insight as they were before it happened.

But Tottenham was not entirely at the mercy of these eunuchs, and they had the good sense not to turn to them for advice when it came time to design a memorial. There was a "Flight 93" moment during this day of terror, too:

Considered merely as a romantic interruption of modern life, the event was, of course, amazing. It was simply a headlong series of short stories for the magazines. A milkman is mildly driving his cart along a mild and modern street; he is struck as by blasting magic, and two adventurers whirl away in his milk-cart. An ordinary elderly gentleman gets into an ordinary suburban tram-car; six or seven people get in, five or six people get out, in the ordinary way; two other people remain in the ordinary way. Then suddenly two more people get in, and he discovers that nothing but the violent virtues of a wolf may save him in a hail of bullets and a hell of inhuman fear. That elderly man in the tram-car is to me the most sublime and symbolic of human figures. When the ruffians first leapt on the car and held their loaded revolvers to the conductor's head, the elderly gentleman did nothing. He is not to be blamed if he was afraid, but it is much more likely that he was profoundly astonished, as if a hippopotamus had been shown into his dressing-room. But later in the run (as we read from the accounts) he seems to have made up his mind and "attempted to seize" one of the robbers.

Seriously, I think that splendid; I think he ought to have a statue. We have statues to all sorts of stupid old elderly gentlemen who, having been brought up in the Army, from a distant hill directed or misdirected military operations which they understood or were supposed to understand. We have statues of silly elderly gentlemen who, having been bred to politics, conducted or misconducted political campaigns. We have nothing so sensible as a statue to an elderly gentleman who could attempt something that could never be expected of him--an elderly gentleman who could so far forget the environment of Tottenham and so abruptly alter the habits of a lifetime as to "attempt to seize" two armed bandits on a tram-car. The delay before his desperate revolt makes it all the finer. He is a symbol of the patient modern man at last taking his fate in his own hands. He is typically and supremely the Man in the Street, when he shall at last remember that, though the street is strict and formidable, there is not only a street but also a man in it.


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