The other day, an 18-year-old Alabama girl who, by her own description, is a World War II history buff, posted a photo of herself on Twitter smiling in front of the barracks at Auschwitz, the prison camp where untold numbers of Jews were executed.
Her youthful smile, jarringly juxtaposed before the somber gray brick buildings, was a selfie I suspect she wished she could undo, but the damage was done. Her explanation was that she took it in homage to her father, who had promised to take her there but had passed away last year. I don’t doubt her. I am very certain she wasn’t trying to make light of the catastrophe that unfolded there decades before.
I am very certain that, like millions of Americans, she had no sense of tonality in sacred places.
At Arlington Cemetery, there are small, metal signs all over the grounds that say “Silence and Respect.” That’s all. Now, one would think that seeing the endless fields of white gravestones would chill each visitor into that silence and respect the fallen deserve.
But they often don’t.
I’ve seen it there. I have stood before the grave of President John F. Kennedy and heard jokes. I have seen a lot of bored-looking teenagers mug at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I once saw a group of young people moon a photographer in Dealey Plaza, steps from where the president was murdered. I’ve heard stories about laughter at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, where hundreds of American sailors were immolated in a flash on Dec. 7, 1941.
Why do some people lack decorum in public spaces where mourning should be the proper emotion?
I suppose one reason is that some young people have no memory, or, indeed, no sense of the gravity and import of historical events. I am not sure where to place the blame here. It may be partly due to the fact that we live in an often unserious society bolstered by a trivial media culture, and partly due to a general lack of decorum anywhere.
When you look at photographs of Major League Baseball games from the 1930s, everyone seems to wearing suits, ties and straw boaters or fedoras. Women were in dresses. I don’t think that there is a need for us to return to boiled collars, but it communicated a societal attitude about deportment.
Parents who are educated about history, on one hand, can convey that one doesn’t stand and take selfies in front of the president’s grave, or on the Arizona Memorial, or any other place where people died for their country or in a terrible national disaster. It’s just common courtesy. Parents who are not educated about history, on the other hand, are not going to correct the behavior of children behaving badly at a site that they are too young to comprehend, even if they weren’t alive when the event occurred.
I have never been to Auschwitz. But I sure know what happened there, and I know that I wouldn’t take a selfie there, or at the U.S.S. Arizona, or in Dealey Plaza, or at any of the innumerable sites across the United States or the world where my silence and respect are deserved.
The Alabama girl hasn’t really apologized. She’s fighting back on Twitter.
Maybe silence and respect would be a good start.