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Stealing From the Dead: The High Cost of Vandalism

Back in April, before the world got quite as crazy as it feels now, before violent riots became a nightly part of the urban landscape, before Memorial Day weekend in fact, a handful of Marin County Republican women realized there would be no formal Memorial Day events. Social distancing, Covid-19, shut-down, etc. Respecting the rules as they stood back in April we decided we shouldn’t allow Memorial Day to pass without remembering the fallen. So we put together living floral arrangements for the War Memorial. Just a few plants, a bit of color, something living to respect the dead. A quiet, personal tribute, more about the effort than the cost.

The World War I Memorial is particularly poignant for me… A handsome bronze Doughboy and so many names —so many names considering how rural and lightly populated this county was a hundred plus years ago. The local families in 1920 —local families wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic— probably all knew their lost boys, or the cousin or brother, wife, sister or mother of one of the men who didn’t come home. The Merchant Marine memorial too is a reminder that the sea is the only grave some men have. Every single one of the monuments has too many names, represents fear and hope. Every single one of the monuments represents idealism as well. If nothing else those stones say we will not forget our dead.

The men who fought in World War I genuinely thought they were fighting in the last war… they were fighting a war to end all wars. Their suffering and loss was meant to usher in a new era. My great grandfather was one of the American men who thought he was fighting in the last war. He didn’t live long enough to know that the war he knew as the “Great War” would be labeled the First World War once hostilities broke out again in Europe. And so the Doughboy is just one among the monuments at the War Memorial.

A week before Memorial Day I was on my hands and knees in the midst of the early morning fog, sweeping leaves off pavement and re-arranging plants. Nothing grand, but living at least. Some color for the dead. An older man walking a dog came by and thanked me and I felt a bit embarrassed because this wasn’t about me… It wasn’t political… it was just a very small gesture to remember those who gave everything. But he said something that made me think, “It looks like someone cares for a change.” Standing back across the pavement I realized he was right, the plants were a sign of caring as well as respect.

In the aftermath of Memorial Day we realized that the 4th of July would also go unmarked this year —parades and the county fair another casualty of the Covid-19 shut-down— so we decided to keep the flowers alive through the 4th of July. By text message, e-mail and phone we kept up a watering rota and pruning regimen. One woman would water in the evening, another in the morning. I grew almost all the plants and donated them to the cause, another woman watered almost every day for a month, another woman brought better potting soil. It was a team effort even if the team rarely saw each other in person. Call it a social distancing team. By July 4th we were so pleased by the display of flowers we decided to keep it up another month. It was, we thought, the least we could do to honor the memory of all the men (and women) who didn’t make it home.

Then a plant disappeared. (Actually an entire planter disappeared. Plant and pot together.) Oddly it was the only plant there that hadn’t come from my garden so it was irritating but I didn’t care that much. (Another woman had donated the pot. On her behalf I was irritated.) In fact, we congratulated each other that we had put together such a nice display for so many weeks and had only had one plant disappear. A few weeks later another plant and planter was stolen. Earlier this week two more disappeared in one night.

In a year of understatements to say I was irritated would be an understatement. I seethed with anger at 7am as I stood there with my water bottles to do my daily watering duty and realized the two showiest --they were in full bloom at the time-- planters had been carried off along with the flags and dedication cards. Irate I called the lady who had watered the night before. In less than fifteen hours we had lost two plants. More importantly we had lost a sense of confidence in our neighbors. What kind of people steal from the dead? What kind of a person steals from men who have given their blood and their lives for their country? At this point all they have is a few stones and a few statues and a few plants. Who could steal flowers from a grave? Even a metaphorical grave?

I wasn’t angry on my own behalf. I was angry over the state of the world. Angry over the entitlement and narcissism of someone who would dare steal from the dead. If you want a few plants you can buy them for fifteen or twenty or forty dollars at your local nursery. You could do something truly outrageous and put in the effort and time and grow them from scratch. What, I thought, has the world come to that someone, perhaps four different someones, would dare steal from the dead?

And then I realized that that is what is wrong with this strange new season of vandalism that is upon us. The people who vandalized the Lincoln statue —a statue paid for in the aftermath of the Civil War by donations from former slaves— were thieves. They vandalized the memories of the dead. They stole from history. They stole from the future. They want their own ignorance, narcissism, arrogance and hate to cover everything. The people who vandalized the statue of the great Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko were vandals, thieves and, above all, ignoramuses who wanted to impose their ignorance and smug stupidity on the future.

That is the essence of that word we hear so much of today, “privilege.” You have to be truly privileged to have the confidence, the arrogance and, as my father says, the soullessness, to steal from the dead. In this season of 2020 there is too much privilege of that sort. Too much arrogance. I seriously doubt whoever stole the plants from the War Memorial thought much about their actions. They probably steal all the time. They steal parking spots from other people, cut in line in front of people who have been doing the right thing and waiting. They steal the time of the well meaning. Someone who steals from the dead is probably the same sort of person who cheats to get their kid into college. Then claims everyone steals and cheats. Then claims anyone who doesn’t steal and cheat is stupid. Then bursts into tears and acts like a victim if they get caught. That is privilege. The privilege of narcissism. The privilege of arrogance. The privilege of soullessness.

The men memorialized at our local War Memorial didn’t have that sort of privilege. Some were drafted, many volunteered. All gave everything. That, I think, is the difference between a strong society and a weak society. In a strong society almost everyone is willing to give when necessary. In a weak society people take because they can… because they don’t believe in personal responsibility or the public good.

Ironically, in this weird season of 2020 many of the greater vandals of our country —people who are tearing down statues, burning buildings and threatening to purge the history books of our shared legacy— are claiming their actions are about caringthey say they care so much they feel pain seeing a statue of Abraham Lincoln. These people don’t care about anything other than themselves. They are thieves. They steal from the dead, they steal from the living, and they are trying to steal from the future.

We can’t afford to coddle thieves. These privileged thieves of time should be held to account. Stop talking about what they claim their motivations are… start talking about what it really means to a country when you allow privileged hipsters to tear down an often extremely inspiring history, eradicate the beauty from our parks, steal flowers from the dead. Do we want to live in a country where a hipster in a green plastic tutu can dance around the flaming embers of a public monument while the police are ordered to stand down by politicians eager to appease the pseudo intellectuals who rile up the mob? Or do we want to live in a country with integrity?

Someone who steals from the dead may have a lot of excuses. But absolutely no integrity.

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