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In the western world, credit for the idea of a memorial moment of silence is generally given to Edward George Honey, an Australian journalist. He was living in London in 1919 when the British were considering how to commemorate the first anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. A rowdy celebration was expected for the anniversary. In May 1919, Honey wrote a letter to the London Evening News, asking for the silent recognition of the soldiers who'd died in the war. "In France, in Flanders, and in the deserts of the East stand crosses unnumbered to mark the splendor of their sacrifice," Honey wrote. "Can we not spare some fragments of those hours of peace...for a silent tribute to the mighty dead? I would ask for five minutes, five silent minutes, of national remembrance, in the home, in the street, anywhere indeed where men and women chance to be."
Honey's idea came to the attention of King George V, and he approved. But even in 1919, five minutes of silence was pushing it. After a rehearsal of the Grenadier Guards—the senior British infantry regiment—two minutes was settled on. King George asked all Brits to observe the two-minute silence at 11 AM—the hour at which the war formally ended—on every November 11 thenceforth. It's still observed on that day at that hour in the U.K. and many countries.
Honey lived for only three November 11th remembrance silences before he was silenced by tuberculosis in 1922, at age 36.
I was captivated by the moment of silence at Ryan Field Saturday before Northwestern's game—the approximately 20 seconds during which thousands managed to button their lips and stand in one place. If two minutes was about right in 1919, maybe 20 seconds is the most we can expect today, at least at a college football game. I like the idea of a broad, secular, public reflection, but the silence in the tribute appeals to me even more than the remembering. Silence and stillness are rare in our bustling world, and, pardon the pun, unheard of in a crowd. I suspect they have a salutary effect on participants. I wish there were a larger place for silence in public, and that it wasn't mainly linked to tragedy and mourning, or limited to churches.
Remembrances of wars or attacks like 9/11 can easily devolve into jingoistic displays. Moments of silence work against that. Maybe this was one reason the NFL included a "national minute of remembrance" in its 9/11 tribute plans for each stadium that hosted a game last Sunday. It was a nice but doomed idea. Pro football fans go to stadiums to hoot and holler. They're also happy to display their patriotism, so long as this involves waving a small flag on a stick, screaming or chanting "USA"—or doing something. But get them to remain silent for a complete minute? Be real. It was easier for the league to produce flags as big as playing fields than to pull that off.
At Soldier Field, as at other stadiums, the ceremonies began with Robert De Niro on video screens, assuring fans that "the NFL remembers." He was followed by a live simulcast of an army bugler playing taps in Shanksville, Pa. Fans had been alerted that the "national minute of remembrance" would follow taps and precede the National Anthem. In Soldier Field, the crowd was respectfully hushed during taps. But after the bugler sounded his final lingering note, the minute of silence lasted two seconds—it was broken by whooping, the "USA!" chants, and an ovation, which continued, Chicago-style, through the National Anthem.
In the other stadiums, likewise, crowds plowed right over the silent minute of remembrance as if it were a puny defensive line. In Candlestick Park in San Francisco, 49er fans chanted "USA!" through the first 15 seconds of taps before other fans managed to quiet them with disapproving waves. The crowd erupted immediately after taps, and when the P.A. announcer then asked for the moment of silence, he got seven to ten seconds before "USA!" caught on again. In Phoenix, Arizona Cardinal fans dispensed entirely with the moment of silence, roaring from the end of taps to the beginning of the National Anthem. I watched videos of most of the Sunday pre-game ceremonies, and the longest moment of silence I came across was in Houston; Texan fans were quiet nearly ten seconds after taps before "USA!" began, and it was another five seconds before the chant became thunderous.
In the vast majority of post-game accounts about the tributes, reporters' silence about the failed moments of silence was deafening. They mentioned the minutes of remembrance as if they'd actually occurred. The moments of silence were worthy of note, but not worthy enough to notice if they really happened.