I woke up to shootings. First day in America and a mass shooting. I wondered if it happened every day. Fortunately it was no nearer to me than on the hotel TV but it definitely gave the day a hue.
Walking towards the memorials I felt I didn’t want to go, like my sister was making me see this against my will. I didn’t need to observe the ritual memorialising of the biggest mistakes of the most messed up nation on earth, which pontificates freedom for all but in such a blinkered way.
That’s one way of looking at it I s’pose.
When we went out for a run before breakfast, my sister and I were chatting about the day ahead, I expressed nervousness and how I felt a bit sick about it and she replied that it might do me good. “Imagine the number of people who stop themselves from going using that thinking”. It was time to learn a bit, I decided.
We got a bit lost on our way there but once the streets gave way to trees and grass we knew it couldn’t be far. It was, of course surreal, seeing it all for the first time.
First, Vietnam and the women who fought. Then, that sad wall of names, as if carved out of a pure black solid earth. Was it intentionally uninviting? We didn’t go closer. Then on to Lincoln, looking out over the reflecting pool through grand Grecian columns sat on white marble steps.
What was it all about?
I sat on the steps and contemplated “saved the union”, coupled with “the great emancipator” and wondered cynically who or what became enslaved as a result. My grasp on history has always been weak so I decided to just go on gut feeling, as confusing history with its ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ never tells a true story to me.
Feeling my way down the grand marble steps toward the Korean War memorial, I enjoyed the trees, water and smiling people. Then again, straight into the depths as we observed the dismal trudge of haggard soldiers where the meaning of freedom simply seemed to still be stuck. “Freedom is Not Free”, carved into a wall. Another message about the bravery of soldiers fighting in a country they didn’t know to protect the freedom of people they would never meet. This was the hardest part to take in. How were we so far removed from the idea of freedom? The irony of freedom being something outside of ourselves, which we have to fight and kill for and that it is for some but not others. I felt strongly that whoever erects these memorials believes that freedom is about walking around in a protected space within a prison of ideals and beliefs. The idea that war is an essential human characteristic in order for freedom to happen felt so wrong.
“Freedom is Not Free” became a bit of a theme of the rest of the trip for us as we were frisked going into museums, heard the shouts of police as they ushered people around during an event, disrespectfully ordering them to “Get to the other side of the street!” The people hurriedly ran away, half afraid. The general authoritarian, rule-bound infrastructure gives off an air of distrust of its own citizens. It was difficult not to feel cynical about this place and people.
So how could I look at it differently? How could I walk through this place learning only that we never learn? Where did I fit in to all of this? An outsider, slagging it all off from my high horse. It’s so easy to do. Where was my role, the part of me that was afraid to go there that morning? What could I really take home?
The Martin Luther King memorial was such a relief. The quotes gave such a sense of vision, poetry, depth and humanity. It really suited us and was such a relief from the war and death; a celebration of freedom, love and passion, all stemming from the most horrible oppression. Not a war but a celebration of the human spirit pushed to believe in a great change. Such a different standpoint from war. A movement. A shift of belief. It was so not possible for me to have a problem with non-violence and hope and love. This was the most powerful message. So sad it was crushed.
Around the basin the helicopters’ bass heavy exhausts fill my consciousness and I think of war. I imagine what it takes to keep control of trade, to push your way into power and what it takes to stay there. I feel like we tell a confused story which asks us to learn and change yet ironically can’t let go of power and war and violence in order to achieve it. The request of the end of war that all these memorials ask feels like an impossible vision.
At what point will ‘freedom’ itself be waged war upon? It’s only a matter of time, I thought.
I don’t wish to misrepresent America, though. I feel like we’re all messed up, America is just more shouty about it. Like the spoiled, extraverted, needy teenager of the world, stuck in a negative thought pattern. A polarised population, a love hate battle. So much potential for positive change. That’s what the memorials walk was for me.
It is my responsibility to help spread love, non-violence and to believe we can change. That part is a no-brainer. Anything else just would not be enough.
Freedom is Not Yet Free.