March 3, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | When the President Talks About Dead Americans

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My grandfather may have been the world’s biggest proponent of the breakfast donut. He had an armchair in his living room, which I believe is a requirement for that position. From there he would dispense pastries to his incredulous grandchildren who simply did not know how to process what was happening to them. Having pacified us with morning cholesterol, he would ask us about the fourth grade, then suggest we all run for president.

For a few weeks after he died, he trailed around behind me a little bit. Distance and disease had stood between us for most of my adolescence, so by the time he passed nearly ten years later, memories of eight am donuts had blurred into the stylized imagination of a child thinking about someone much older than them. Sketched in my mind, he wasn’t really a complete person so much as a handful of emotions and connotations; he was a hazy feeling of comfort, wisdom and mild intimidation. So for those few weeks, his memory would bump into my back, or step awkwardly on my heels. He was a little shadow that latched onto the soles of my sneakers.

I was not ashamed of the way I remembered my grandfather until I saw the way his children did. In death, he had flattened out in my mind, become just the thing I wanted to remember him as. At the time, it suited my emotional wellbeing to remember him as the cartoon outline of a grandfather, something to be missed, but not quite fully. At his funeral, though, when his children mourned their father, he was eight feet tall with a thousand dimensions that I had never seen before. He was jokes and advice, road-trips and weddings; he was a full life I really did not know. I watched them talk and cry with this full, complete man standing unspoken between them, a person they knew in a way that nobody else could. I got the sense that they understood how their memories stood in relation to my own, or rather in relation to those that everyone else had. They were mourning a person, while the rest of us were mourning the idea that worked.

As a child, I molded my grandfather into the shape of something I wanted to look at. Knowing what I did about him gave me just enough material for the job — not quite human, but something to work with. It’s the thing, I think, that we often do with the dead who we don’t quite know. On Tuesday night, when the president talked about dead Americans, and the CSPAN cameras aimed steadily at their families, he did something that looked just the same.

As he spoke, the president held three small memories in his hand: Jamiel, Danny and Michael. He didn’t give a speech about these memories; really, his joint address was more a display of competent reading than anything else. But clenched in his fist were these few little ghosts. They had a shape when he first picked them up — names, surely, and lives as well. It’s hard for me to know what their voices sounded like or whether they put ketchup on their eggs, but somebody does, and that’s quite enough.

These were three men who lost their lives, all three to violent crime. For the president though, they were mostly just the tools for a rhetorical crescendo. Slowly, deliberately, he teased out their stories. Killed by undocumented immigrants to the United States, these men were pillars of the communities in which they lived. Then he gestured to their families: Jamiel’s father, Danny and Michael’s wives and then Danny’s daughter. The cameras panned to the bereaved, and the contents of the Capitol Building turned, stood and began to cheer.

It would not suffice, I suppose, for him to simply reference the victims of crime in general terms. The sort of fear he hopes to peddle relies on faces and names and children without parents. Moreover, the sort of applause that needs to survive — the kind of thing that evokes ovation from the two feckless men who flanked him to his rear — requires the face of a mourning widow. He doesn’t want the full humanity of the ghosts he holds up in front of us. The president needs to be able to show us people, show us their lives and the people who love them, and then turn them into ideas. When we see a victim, their life ought to translate into fear.

By the time the president reached the peak of his performance, he had clutched those memories tight in fists for quite a while. His hands had clenched around them like they were an engagement ring, or a dollar thirty-five in quarters and dimes ready to approach a tollbooth. By then they had molded like clay under the heat of his jagged intentions. They fit to the shape of the anger he held them in, so when he held up these three memories, it was clear he had sculpted vengeance, and nothing he had made was human.

We all have a very natural inclination to flatten out the dead. Outside of those very proximate to us, most people who pass take on a very simplified meaning in our minds. Even a grandfather, of whom I hold very real and warm memories, so easily became a set of ideas, things I wanted him to mean. Our president is someone who manipulates at a level of perfected skill. He knows that mourning, as a matter of human disposition, holds a power to make us stand up when we might otherwise have sat. He knows how naturally we reshape the dead to fit our own intentions. More seriously, he knows how easily suggestible these intentions are. Watch the president when he talks about dead Americans. Watch the shapes he gives their memory.


Rubin Danberg Biggs is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.