Public memorials are meant to set in stone, or steel, or flowing fountains, our collective passage through the traumatic events that shock our culture. They take the long view, separating out our immediate responses — the grief over souls lost, the hysteria around violence and inhumanity — and serve as symbols of our better, centered selves, that thing inside that allows us to process horrors and survive.
They are dedicated to the dead but serve the living, and we have come to depend on their gentle versions of history to move us forward, tapping them to cope with the bigness of global things like the Holocaust, and the smallness of personal tragedies like highway fatalities. They contain calamities and help us understand them — the great human cost of triumphs, like that of Abraham Lincoln, or the vulnerability of defeat, like the 9/11 attacks, or to accept that some things will always be in the frustrating middle of win and lose, like the Vietnam War.
This is the great challenge for the proposed memorial to the 2012 Aurora movie theater shootings, which bears the burden of defining the unusual event for eternity. What actually happened the night of July 20, when a lone gunman entered a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” unleashed canisters of tear gas and then opened fire with automatic weapons, killing 12 and wounding 70 more?
Was it an act of global terrorism, like 9/11 or the Orlando nightclub shooting, which are linked, accurately or not, to religious fundamentalism? Or was it domestic terrorism, like the anti-government Oklahoma City bombing? Was it fueled purely by racial hatred, like the 2015 attack that killed nine people at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.? Categorizing tragic events and their motives make memorializing victims easier. We can say they died because they were Americans, or black or gay, Christians or freedom-fighters, and we can call them heroes for taking the fall for all of us, and we can make a monument to their valor and sacrifice.
But the Aurora victims were none of those things. They were just movie fans, really, not soldiers or civil servants. They died because they enjoyed Batman, not because they were on one side or another of a culture war. They weren’t victims of sacred suicide raids or genocide. They were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
How do you make a monument to bad luck?
That’s the $200,000 question for the nonprofit 7/20 Memorial Foundation, which has raised private funds and is currently seeking design proposals for a memorial to be placed in the middle of a “reflections garden” on 2,500 square feet of city-donated land at the Aurora Municipal Center.
The memorial, according to the recent call for proposals, will be “intended as a place where the community and those affected by loss can remember loved ones, seek comfort, strength, peace and hope.” The memorial committee suggests that something like wind chimes may be an appropriate part of the design, or written poetry, or maybe some sort of sculptural seating, though the surrounding garden has already committed to installing benches to honor each of the victims and is working with their survivors on the surrounding landscape.
The call is open and, in some ways, open-minded, except for a few rules that establish a tone: no water features, since the garden is ecology-minded and “water-wise” and, to be clear, it “should not advance themes that are controversial, political, intended to shock, or directly reflect the violence experienced or the perpetrator.”
In other words, the committee wants to impose a tender spin on its version of what happened. No shocks to remember just how shocking it all was, no call to political action meant to generate support for better mental health care or gun control, nothing controversial that might question the level of violence in pop culture. The gunman here was insane by all reasonable definitions and received no meaningful treatment. He was allowed to buy massive amounts of ammunition with the click of a mouse. He did the most violent of acts in the middle of the most violent of movie franchises where scores of people are murdered and the perpetrators are, literally, called jokers.
This, of course, is standard procedure for memorials. They whitewash as a matter of habit, and this effort is keen to follow suit. It starts with the presumed name of the thing — the 7/20 Memorial — an exercise in clever, 21st century branding, and runs right through with a demand for “positive energy” and an attempt to broaden its tribute beyond the victims, to “not only loved ones lost, but also the strength of survivors, heroes, the community, and all those affected by this tragedy, and by loss.”
This technique — of paying homage to all, and in the vaguest of terms — works for many commemorative efforts. The memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing really is, essentially, a set of chairs designed by Hans and Torrey Butzer in 2000. It invites little more than psychic rest, for both the victims and those who might have been victims for their American allegiance and who tire of mourning the event.
The official 9/11 memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, is simply two giant fountains on the footprint of the demolished World Trade Center towers. They appear as bottomless pits and water gushes downward, deep into the ground. They underscore the shear power of the attack and recognize that terrorism will always take its toll, and that sadness is a never-ending part of the human experience.
They take no political or social stand, because there is none to take. We know why their victims perished. What might they endeavor to say: that war is bad or terrorism terrible?
But we have no explanations for why the Aurora victims died. And that begs for a different kind of memorial, and for creative leadership in developing a more authentic and specific response. It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to create a checklist of everything we can think of and award it honor. “Survivors?” “Heroes?” Anyone ever affected “by loss?” Were there really heroes on that night or was that just the way the media steered the story? Isn’t everyone everywhere sad that this happened?
The Aurora shootings were a tragedy and, despite the selfish lawsuits that attempted to say otherwise, they were no one’s fault except the gunman’s. They happened to 12 unfortunate souls who had no choice.
But we do have a collective choice in how we respond and in capturing the power of what that response could be. It should recognize randomness, not valor. It should call out violence for what it is: senseless. It should question easy-to-get rifles and condemn movie horrors for the enablers they are. It should not avoid politics or neutralize madmen or pretend evil doesn’t exist. It shouldn’t erase the facts with a sanitized name; it should name exactly what happened.
What does that look like in physical form? What should the design committee look for as the entries come in? How do artists or architects take the long view, and separate out our immediate responses and help us cope?
Maybe they can’t. Maybe our immediate responses are still unfolding. The 9/11 Memorial opened a full a decade after the planes hit their targets. The Lincoln Memorial took three generations to complete. Both events were easier to define than the Aurora shootings.
They got it right by allowing meaning to emerge over time, not by avoiding meaning altogether, and not for the sake of getting the job done because we are all aching to move on. They waited, and if no convincing design emerges by the Feb. 6 deadline of this present call, then maybe this memorial should wait, too.
Note: This story first appeared in the Denver Post.