Final Judgment is Always History’s to Make

14 Sep

The most memorable moment of Martin Scorcese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York” – generally not one of the acclaimed director’s most memorable films – comes in the final minute before the closing credits.

The film – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis – mostly takes place in the now-gone Five Points slum of Lower Manhattan during the time of the American Civil War. It depicts the vicious and gory turf wars between “nativist” Protestant and Irish Catholic immigrant gangs in the unrecognizable pre-metropolis New York City of that long-ago era.

The story culminates in a violent battle among gang members set against the backdrop of the bloody New York Draft Riots of 1863, during which hundreds of people were killed, many buildings were burned to the ground, racial violence flared, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sent in troops to bring the city under control.

At the very end of the movie, as one character’s narration describes how the city was born of “blood and tribulation” and laments how everything he once knew had been swept away and he and his confrères forgotten, the camera lingers on a shot of the graves of two other characters in a cemetery across the East River from a burning Manhattan.

In a series of time-lapse shots lasting less than 60 seconds on film but representing the passage of almost 150 years, we watch the gravestones deteriorate and disappear, the cemetery transformed into a barren field, and the city in the distance grow into the familiar modern metropolis we recognize today.

The scene is a poignant depiction of the power of time to blunt memories and to turn powerful events that seem of great importance to those living through them into hazy half-forgotten historical footnotes.

At the end of the movie, the twin towers of the World Trade Center are briefly glimpsed on a spot where a minute earlier, smoke swelled from the 1863 riots. The film was made not long after the 2001 attacks that brought the towers down, so seeing them in this context is striking.

This month, the tenth anniversary of the 9 / 11 attacks has provoked countless reports, memorials, and public and private thoughts about the meaning of the event, and how it changed our world and defined our era.

There is no question that 9 / 11 did those things. All of us old enough to remember that day will forever remember what we were doing when the airplanes hit the towers. And so many of the major international developments of the past ten years have origins in the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.

It feels odd that it has already been ten years since then, because the attacks still have such a visceral resonance to so many of us who remember that day, how it unfolded and what came after.

In the broad sweep of history, though, there is no way for us to know now what its resonance will be. It all depends what happens next and what happens after that, and so on and so on. That’s how history works.

Will 9 / 11 be seen as a major turning point in world history or will it fade from memory in centuries to come as did the New York Draft riots of 1863? None of us will be around long enough to know, but it is worth contemplating.

Another example, closer in memory and certainly a Canadian – rather than a worldwide – historical event: The death from cancer of NDP Leader Jack Layton this past summer.

If Layton had passed away half a year before he did, it would have been no less tragic – a dynamic and prominent political leader taken down too young. But it was surely how he lived out the final months of his life – whether or not he had any definite sense of his looming mortality – that provoked the mass outpouring of genuine grief and lament for what could have been in the days following his death.

However you viewed his politics, there is no doubt Layton went out with a bang, almost singlehandedly altering the dynamics of Canadian politics by taking the party he led for eight years from fourth place in the House of Commons to Official Opposition and ending the generation-long dominance of the Bloc Québecois in Quebec federal politics.

But it’s too early to judge whether or not those final months of Layton’s life changed Canadian history in a lasting way. Only history itself will be able to judge that.

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