Jeffrey L. Bromberger, Horn Tooter, 1st Class
06 August 2021
If everything is sacred and every location holy, then absolutely nothing is.
As a New Yorker, I have had to put up with more than my fair share of this one. And while this has in effect for quite a while, September 11th brought it into clear focus. What’s today’s misused word?
It started off really simple. We had the Holy Bible. There were Holy relics of the Saints. Temples and Churches are considered Holy places. Shabbos, as a day, is considered Holy, as is the name of G-d Himself.
Slowly, we decided that this wasn’t enough. Or maybe we felt the need to play the game of “one-up” with our worldly tragedies. The first I remember of the growing misuse of the word was along the highways that surround and extend out from NYC. Back in the 1980s, the number of roadside shrines started growing. Any place a person died alongside the road, a little memorial popped up, equipped with a picture, bouquets of flowers and the obligatory cross bearing the decedent’s name and birth/death dates. Some of these were so elaborate that they included plastic garden fencing and LED candles! I’m not a monster – I accept that losing a family member suddenly and violently (as in an auto accident) is one of the hardest things you could have to deal with. But it wasn’t long before our politicians passed a law preventing the eventual removal of these ad hoc memorials, no matter how abandoned and ratty looking they became. They were not considered roadside detritus but a “holy” marker dedicated to the life (and death) of the named person. Thus endeth the collection of highway garbage and the mowing of roadside grass…
I lost way too many friends at the WTC that day, as well as a possible career, but even those personal ties do not change the basic facts.
Things came to a head after the World Trade Center disaster. Perhaps you can’t blame the media for grabbing onto our heartstrings with their claws. We all know the basic rule of news reporting: if it bleeds, it leads. I cannot seem to find out who started using the “Ground Zero” term to apply to the crash site. Maybe I missed the memo, because the papers and news websites say that the term came from “people.” I find this odd, since the term Ground Zero had a pretty clear meaning before. We were taught in school (remember when they taught facts back then?) that the phrase exclusively referred to the site in Hiroshima (or secondarily in Nagasaki) where we dropped a nuclear bomb to stop World War II. Here we were, over 56 years removed from the Mushroom Clouds, and the tragedy of our two collapsed buildings were being regularly compared to the wreckage in Japan. Of course, if you let this comparison stand, you’re basically equating the American airmen with the Muslim terrorists that crashed those planes. I wonder how many people realize this. I also wonder just how many involved at the WTC site had eyewitness experience with the real “Ground Zero.”
For now, this doesn’t really irk me as badly as it seems, though what happened next is a crime.
As the recovery crews started searching the wreckage and clearing the debris from the site, some unnamed individual referred to the ground as “holy”. Is the land a cemetery of sorts? You betcha. Was there an excruciating loss of life there? Yup. Are there still remains there from the people who were never found? Sigh – yes. But, in any way, does that make make the site Holy? It’s a American tragedy, no doubt. I lost way too many friends at the WTC that day, as well as a possible career, but even those personal ties do not change the basic facts.
Things got out of hand as the process wound down. The Port Authority gave away pieces of the fallen towers as gruesome mementos under the cover of this crazy belief that the steel girders which were, just yesterday, steel girders are, today, somehow spiritually transformed into more than they were/are. And this “holy and sacred” steel has spread everywhere! There are two (of course) columns of iron from the North Tower at the Freeport Rifle and Revolver club – my old home range on Long Island. I can understand that – the Freeport community lost several police and firefighters in the disaster. But I discovered to my amazement (and disbelief) that there’s a mini-shrine here in Fort Worth, at the Museum of Science and History. They, too, have a pair of beams from the top of the North Tower. And, just in time for the 20th Anniversary, a complete Lego reconstruction of the site! Enough already! Does everybody feel the burning desire to claim a piece of the suffering, the pain, the national humiliation that we felt that day? Why didn’t they carve up the USS Arizona, if that’s the case?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “holy” as follows: devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity. I know that the Downtown site has a Memorial to the fallen, a Museum (and don’t forget the Gift Shop!) together with new office towers, shopping destinations and a large transit hub. How much of this “holy site” belongs entirely to Him is up for debate, but since He’s not paying rent, I’d suspect the number of square feet He’s got is too small to measure. Just being honest here…
Here we are and twenty years have passed since this event scorched itself into our collective memory. Scars form over a wound that will never really heal for some of us. We manage to pass by (and work across the street from) the WTC site on a daily basis without seeing the faces and ghosts of those loved ones we lost. Perhaps it was overdue on a Universe time scale – another similar catastrophe to keep us aware that we don’t run this world, we only inhabit it temporarily. In south Florida, we are once again confronted with a building collapse that mercilessly snuffs out life. Under the weeping families and architectural surveys, we hear the same words that us Old Timers gruesomely remember from the WTC disaster: “floors are pancaked”. The exact cause is not all that important to me, personally, in the long run. But just like that, the site is now considered “Holy.” Yeah. It’s across all the papers. Haven’t we learned anything? And it isn’t as if we’ve just moved the term on to the new property – the WTC/Pentagon/Pennsylvania crash sites are still referred by that pseudo-religious epithet even now.
There’s a hard lesson for everybody in all of this. If you suddenly declare a place where somebody has died as Holy or Sacred, then almost every place is Holy and Sacred. Which means, ta daaa, that no place is Holy. I’m not saying that Church yards, cemeteries and (therefore) certain battlefields are not holy. It is important to note that neither the deaths nor the burials make the ground holy – it’s the act of consecrating the land that does it. And I’d wager you serious money that the Holy See would never allow you to build a ritzy shopping destination and Transit Hub upon any land so properly dedicated to remembering the numerous lost souls.
My fluency in the New Testament is pretty sketchy, but this paraphrase of Matthew 20:21 seems to work well:
Render unto the holy that which is holy and leave the rest of it for other worldly matters.