Why it's important to stop and honor sacred dates

Today marks a sacred date in American history. It is not the only one. Why do we take pains to, in some fashion, acknowledge it in the public press every year?

I have no particular claim on understanding sacred dates. I take some insight from the late Kurt Vonnegut, who introduces his novel "Breakfast of Champions" with a forward describing what he saw as an important distinction in how we view Nov. 11.

"When I was a boy," he wrote, " ... all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not."

I disagree with Vonnegut on that last statement, but I appreciate his point. I often think of it when we mark the beginnings and endings of historic tragedies, particularly Dec. 7, a date whose impact seems to weaken with each new generation.

Today is, of course, Pearl Harbor Day, a remembrance of the date in 1941 when a surprise attack by Japan killed more than 2,400 American service members and civilians and brought the United States into the Second World War. Americans who lived through the trauma of that day, and the horrible four years that followed, know full well its import, and historians certainly recognize its place in the shaping of our world. Yet, though it will always "live in infamy," as President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared at the time, it certainly does not trouble the memory of contemporary generations in the way it did for people 82 years ago.

We do have in our lifetime, sadly, a similarly infamous date that, like Pearl Harbor Day, demands to be remembered, though only those who were there and old enough to experience it can know the awful leadenness of that historic shock. Even men and women now in their 20s and 30s know little more than that Sept. 11, 2001, was a world-changing date, and that is an exercise largely more intellectual than visceral. It is left to mass media and historians to try to resurrect those memories each year and provide some sense of what such a mass trauma felt like so people of later generations understand why remembering it is important.

This is naturally a more difficult task with each passing anniversary. Even the most monumental dates slip into the folds of time. Few dates in modern Western culture carry more impact than Oct. 14, 1066, but even well-read adults today do not stop every Oct. 14 to reflect on the impact of the Battle of Hastings. Every schoolkid knows that "the shot heard round the world" in 1775 led to the birth of the United States, but few adults would recall it occurred on April 19 without looking it up. Likewise with any number of consequential dates in American history - April 12, 1861, (shots fired on Fort Sumter); Feb. 15, 1898 ("Remember the Maine," whose sinking led to war with Spain); June 6, 1944 (the D-Day invasion of Normandy); Aug. 6, 1945 (the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima); and, oh so sadly, on and on.

So, while we can, let us do our best to reflect on such dates and strive to imagine, even if we weren't there ourselves, the monument of horrific events that overwhelm the national consciousness.

But let's also remember the spirit raised in Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, (Nov. 19, 1863) commemorating the decisive Civil War battle fought there (July 1-3, 1863): "In a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Sacred dates like Dec. 7, 1941, and all these others deserve to be recognized for the place they hold along the advance of our society and our civilization, but we do not return to these annual reflections for that reason alone. For, such dates are not just bench marks to measure what we have accomplished and why. They are also, and perhaps more importantly, reminders of so much "unfinished work" ahead of us on the road to a more peaceful, compassionate world.

• Jim Slusher,, is managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald.

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