America has a bizarre relationship with memory. We are obsessed with memorials. Do we really believe that one more teddy bear, cellophane-wrapped bouquet of flowers, commemorative tattoo, or one more awful sculpted bas-relief will somehow make it easier to gloss over the inexplicable deaths in a Walmart shooting or a senseless war in Iraq?
The Rhode Island license plate that honors the families of American military personnel who have been killed in service is just the latest in this superficial exploitation of grief.
There is no fee for this plate, but one needs an Official Department of Defense Report of Casualty (DD Form 1300).
Aside from evoking sympathy, being a Gold Star relative might be insurance against tickets: What police officer will fine the mom or father of a son or daughter killed in an ambush in Afghanistan?
There does seem to be a correlation between tacky remembrance and bad design. While by no means the worst of the Ocean State's specialty plates, the Gold Star issue is a minor graphic disaster.
The designers of these special plates seemed concerned only with content, with the result that most of these are embarrassing messes.
The Gold Star Family plate has the folded casket flag in the background, a seal, and the scarecrow-like Iraq War version of a battlefield memorial: helmet, assault rifle, dog tags and boots.
A license plate ought to serve only two functions: revenue and vehicle identification. Political agendas, club affiliations, and historical events should have no place on auto tags. They are distracting visually, while they often make a mockery of what they purportedly hope to remember or honor.
Would this commemorative plate appeal to the mothers of Eric Garner or Michael Brown or Emmett Till?
If one's son/husband/wife/father/mother/brother/sister were killed in a secret operation in some godforsaken place like Niger, would a Gold Star Family license plate be the best way to ensure that these fallen warriors are not forgotten? Is this the most dignified way to remember them?
Princeton University has a tradition of placing a small bronze star beneath the dormitory window where an alumnus who was killed in service had lived. I taught at that university, and in my time there I could not pass by one of these simple, quiet reminders without being moved at the thought of such sacrifice.
William Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian, essayist and author of many books.