Rise of memorials hint at an emotional America

Campaign to build a monument for Littleton, Colo., victims illustrates

They've come from teachers, artists, and even a 14-year-old student.

One suggests building a brick walkway. Another wants to turn a nearby greenspace into Columbine Memorial Park. And Bill Marshall, a local sculptor and Columbine grad, envisions two, 7-foot bronze hands clasping a metal flower with 13 stamens - a conscious decision to not memorialize the two killers, who also died.

These are just a few of the more than 100 ideas for how to memorialize the Columbine High School shootings, submitted by people from across Colorado.

The drive of so many people to build a permanent reminder of the deadliest school shooting in US history - and the debate it may entail - are not unusual these days. From simple roadside shrines commemorating car crashes to high-profile memorials honoring TWA Flight 800 and the Oklahoma City bombing, memorials are popping up across America with increasing regularity.

The reason, according to sociologists and psychologists, hints at a change in the American character. Looking back, some say, is out of line with the brash, frontier mentality that has always driven Americans to charge ahead. While experts are split on whether such projects are healthy, most agree that they are an outgrowth of Americans' new willingness to express their emotions, and do it in public.

"We've cried for thousands of years ... but we're going through an almost emotional tectonic shift," says Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

He notes that retrospection is typical of older, more established cultures and hints that the memorials may be evidence that America - as a nation - may be hitting middle age. "We're becoming an older culture now," Professor Farley says.

The issue of emotion - and changes in how Americans show it - is a central point in the growth of memorials. But Erika Doss, an art historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, worries that memorials may blunt the push for solutions.

"If we contribute [gifts] to the shrine, we've participated," says Ms. Doss, director of the university's American Studies Program. "But it's a real easy way out from thinking about gun control and violence."

Many observers say Americans began the shift toward this greater emotionalism in the 1980s. Farley calls President Carter, whose term ended in 1981, the first "sensitive" president. Another psychologist notes that, since then, more men have begun seeing psychotherapists.

But perhaps most important was the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. The massive public mourning and leaving of gifts at the wall were not only new in themselves, but were also broadcast live on CNN. Almost overnight, those images changed the way Americans mourn, say some.

Indeed, Farley and others say the mass media play a key role. By broadcasting tragedy to people's living rooms, public displays of emotion have become more commonplace. One result is memorials, which "represent a focal point for peoples' emotions," Farley adds.

But the public's reaction to a monument is sometimes unexpected, often complex. In some cases, memorials can spark action. The Battle of Wounded Knee site in South Dakota, commemorating the place where 200 Indians were killed in 1890, is a rallying point for native Americans, says Ken Foote, a geography professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The same is true of the site of the Stonewall protests in New York, which has become a focal point for gay rights.

Yet just as a memorial can unite a community or group, it can also divide. In Littleton, Colo., where a committee is still in the first stages of choosing a memorial, one question has split the town: Should the two killers be included?

After the shootings, an Illinois carpenter came and erected 15 wooden crosses in a park near the school. Two crosses represented the killers, who took their own lives after shooting 12 students and one teacher. The father of one of the slain students promptly tore down those crosses.

Local teacher Phil Grindrod says he hasn't decided what the right thing to do is. Mr. Grindrod works at Dakota Ridge High School, a few miles from Columbine, and he is already getting his business class to create a brick memorial walkway and wishing well - before the Littleton memorial committee has come to a decision.

Grindrod says he believes the shooters were also victims. But he has told a local paper, "That's a call we're going to need some help with."

For his part, Mr. Marshall, the Columbine sculptor, wants to focus on the 13 "innocent victims." "Most people can name the killers," he says. "Most people can't name one of the victims."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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