The Endurance of Names

Shortly after Agosto Pinoche seized control of Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, his opponents, real and imagined, began to disappear. First they disappeared in the hundreds, then in the thousands. In the capital city of Santiago, groups of women cut rough plywood in the shapes of their vanished men. They painted the planks black and held them aloft and marched through the streets. Each rough sign bore a single stark reminder—a name, nothing more—that it stood for an irreplaceable individual. Above the names, a haunting question: Se me olvidaste? Have you forgotten me? The endurance of names, in neat white lines, meant that the vanished would not be forgotten.

At the end of 15 years of dictatorship, the names of those who had never come home were inscribed on a wall at the prison where they last were seen. In some cases, the names evoked memories from visiting loved ones; in others, the names were all that remained.

A hemisphere to the north, a young architect named Maya Lin had grasped the power of names, inscribed them on walls on the Washington Mall and brought a measure of healing to a nation still scorched by the Vietnam War. The names bring tears today because of the fathers and brothers and friends they represent. But even when all who knew the fallen have died—when the last living memory has faded—the names will retain the power to provoke.

Sept. 11, 2011, was a day of names. Names of the 9/11 dead had been inscribed on fountains at Ground Zero, benches at the Pentagon and stone slabs in Shanksville, Pa. Michael Arad’s Ground Zero memorial had even ensured that the names of those who were connected in life were inscribed close to one another in death. The names become not only carriers of lost being, but nodes within networks of friendship and love.

In Las Vegas, a girl was murdered on Sept. 2, 2011. She, too, had a name: Alyssa Otremba. If you put her name in quotation marks and Google it, you will find 57,000 results. These digital results are also a form of inscription. The Internet memorializes. It is not for nothing that Facebook entries are posted on a “Wall.”

But those Google results capture the intense sadness of the modern memorial—sadness more searing than the tears invited by Lin or Arad or the brave women of Chile. The Internet is too open to ennoble; kindness hovers forever a click away from cruelty. Prayers offered in the comment section of a Las Vegas Review-Journal report are forced into immediate and direct dialog with a man who condemns a dead 15-year-old girl for having worn eyeliner and a black T-shirt, and her mother for not having been by her side when she was attacked. He and others write, on the digital wall provided by our civic newspaper, of personal responsibility. The words themselves are irresponsible, a form of savagery. If someone scrawled such pronouncements at Ground Zero, it would be vandalism. On the Review-Journal website, it is public discourse.

Alyssa Otremba’s name will endure, not on a granite wall to be admired by a solemn and awed nation, but on a billion screens, forever connected with words that tell us more about how her life ended than how it was lived. But that is the way of the memorial: For all the magnificent efforts of The New York Times after 9/11 to tell stories of life, visitors to Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2101, will see only the names, and know only of the deaths.

As for Alyssa, perhaps decency will prevail on the hard frontier of the Internet. In the days after her death, a Facebook memorial page was created. Within a week, more than 11,000 people had looked upon the wall and seen her name and said, with the small, strange gesture of a thumbs-up, that she will not soon be forgotten.

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