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A Down-to-Earth 9/11 Memorial

September 11, 2004|Josh Stephens

Although it occurred a continent's breadth away, Sept. 11 came to placid Brentwood some months ago, not with fire and dust but with questions of memory, mourning, patriotism and politics.

Touri Bolourchi, a mother, grandmother and longtime resident of Brentwood, perished in an airplane that day. And, after their sorrow had cleared just enough, her relatives approached the Brentwood Community Council to ask it to endorse a street sign in her memory outside her former apartment.

Council members listened to a tender presentation from an aide to City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who spoke on the family's behalf. He described a small, brownish sign bearing Bolourchi's name, which he said would ennoble the community and comfort a family.

The people in the room grew so eager to honor the dead, connect with the nation's grief and denounce evil by any means available that the air itself nearly raised our hands. But then, on the edge of unanimous approval, democracy took its rightful place alongside patriotism. None of us intended to ignore Bolourchi's memory or deny the enormity of 9/11. We who braced ourselves to speak against the proposal did not, however, wish to limit our support to the memory of a single soul when sadness still fell all around the nation. By its inherently public nature, a sign would have confronted passersby and coaxed sentiment from them.

Yet, although Americans have so often ceded their public space to countless forms of abuse, the freedom to choose how to grieve, like the freedoms to vote and speak, matters more than whatever insensate reaction such a sign may have evoked.

Public mourning -- even in the name of Sept. 11 -- has its limits, and we found our limit at the intersection of reverence and coercion. Rather than post a sign, we must trust that the good people who use Gorham Avenue, where Bolourchi lived, have already taken stock of this nation's tragedies. We must trust that they have, in fact, already grieved for her, even if they never knew her. Without this trust, her memorial would have honored no one.

Ultimately, our group voted against the proposal because such an effortless tribute was the least Brentwood could do, and like any good representative body, we resolved, instead, to create something better.

After much discussion, we settled on a bronze plaque, honoring Bolourchi and acknowledging all other local citizens directly touched by the tragedy. Today, it will be dedicated at its permanent site among the coral trees on San Vicente Boulevard.

Its modest stature will, I hope, draw eyes downward to a quiet place, insulated from the grand gestures that too often eclipse genuine emotion. There, far from the flags and slogans and rockets of preemption, mourners may think free thoughts and, if the spirit moves them, shed private tears.

As they so do, perhaps they will think not just about the tragedy in question but also about the community that built it. They may realize that people cared enough to attempt to express the inexpressible, and they may fathom the special times that inspired such action.

And, though they may never know of the easy alternative that would have strained their necks and stifled the imagination, surely they will agree that both Bolourchi and Brentwood -- not to mention the country itself -- deserve ever so much more.

Josh Stephens is a member of the Brentwood Community Council; this commentary is his opinion alone.

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