Aug 28, 2006


Through conditioning, either social or otherwise, some dates become fixed in our minds as the ultimate symbols of a particular moment, the threshold between a before and after point in our understanding, our lives, the world. For example, August 6th always reminds me of Hiroshima, the eruption of the nuclear age, and the moment when the ability of humans to radically alter, or end, this world was no longer theoretical. It was also the date that my grandfather passed away, almost 50 years ago, a very personal date and memory for my mother and her family, but one that I do not have.

Likewise, December 7th, the so-called "Day of Infamy" was the date when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. It has little significance to me personally, although it makes me recall the subsequent actions of the government, and the entry (at last) of the United States in the world theaters in which it had been so reluctant to engage.

I guess that comes more immediately to mind because I just revisited a public education piece concerning the Nazi Holocaust, and the American complicity in the death of millions is hardly mentioned - the more commonly known issue is that the United States knew what was happening and waited for years before it got involved. The piece I surveyed wrote about the possibility of bombing Aushwitz, one of the death camps that the Nazis ran with chilling efficiency in Poland. The U.S. had the ability to bomb it many years before it was finally shut down at the end of the war. But they did not do it. Why don't more people ask why? But perhaps it is even more chilling is that Hitler credited some of his techniques to wipe out populations of Jews, homosexuals, Roma, the disabled, and other non-"Aryans" to the American genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples of North America.

Anyway, more about this idea of historical dates... nowadays there is a small sliver of the non-Korean, Asian American community that recognizes April 29th, sa-i-gu, as an important date for reflection, and a reminder that our places here remain questioned and questionable, no matter what flag we wave in the daylight, or what identity we wear in our dreams. Sa-i-Gu was a recap of what happened to Japanese American's fifty years before, only instead of being taken away from their homes and communities, the Korean immigrants, their stores, and their American dreams were left to burn. In the last five years, we've had a return to the pack-them-up syndrome of the WWII evacuations, but now the camps and prisoners are far more isolated, and minor offenders are sent away, broken men who because of the status of their families and their lives, seem stateless in many ways.

So some dates trigger a lot of feelings, from reverence to personal memories to more abstract emotions of duty, disappointment, or disgrace. But some dates seem easily forgotten. I just saw V for Vendetta, and I still forgot that Guy Fawkes' Day was the Fifth of November, even though there was a clever little rhyme to keep it fresh in one's mind, and his message was memorable in itself. But maybe that's just because I'm American.

Similarly, while September 11th has long passed from simply a moment in history to a symbol all its own (with the offensive shorthand of 9/11 taking the place of a more contemplative full name), what does it mean when a particular anniversary with a date overwhelms any other association with it? As, I suppose, will be the case with July 7th in London, and March 11 in Madrid.

But what about August 29 in the United States? The date, last year, when Katrina's aftermath, and the criminal negligence of Federal agencies, devastated one of the most important cities of American culture. As we go through the obligatory anniversary programming on network and other television, the ease with which people have forgotten what's happened and continues in New Orleans is incredibly disheartening. The devastation after September 11th became a rallying cry for the war hawks, the xenophobes, the "love-it-or-leave-it" crowd, and has been used to justify everything from foreign wars to radical domestic spending priority readjustments.

The televised aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans was horrifying - not because of the questionable lawlessness and looting that reports were alleging, but because we saw the poverty and the wretched condition of people who'd been waiting to be rescued. But what we didn't see as much was the real scope of the Federal government's absolute failure to deal with what happened in our own backyard. It's been spoken and written about ad naseum, but in the theme of this post... while many people remember many dates, will Aug. 29 be passed from year to year with some recognition, or moments of silence, or something to memorialize what we as a nation lost beginning that day? And will people remember that while we have somewhat moved on, the people of New Orleans, many of whom have not yet been able to return home, have not had that comfort.

I had so much I wanted to write about this, but I'd rather just leave it here. Take the time, think about how we can be more actively engaged in the world around us, or at least, in the stories that go on long after the news cameras and the public outpouring of charity and caring fall off. Here's a link for some oral history from survivors through NPR's wonderful StoryCorps initiative.

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