The Moment of Silence

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hold a moment of silence at the White House in Washington, January 10, 2011,

Surely something so basically human — closing one's eyes, standing in silence, and allowing grief to wash over you — has no history. Or rather, it encompasses all of history, so seemingly ingrained in our emotional DNA is the act. Yet, when President Obama and First Lady Michelle stepped out onto the White House lawn Jan. 10 at 11 a.m. and somberly bowed their heads with the rest of the nation in honor of the victims of this past weekend's shooting in Tucson, it was just the latest in a long line of official moments of silence. At its core, marking occasions of great violence with such an act acknowledges a simple truth: oftentimes there just are no words to be said.

The idea to observe a nationwide moment of silence is widely believed to have originated with Australian journalist Edward George Honey. In May 1919 he wrote a letter to the London Evening News (he was living there at the time) wherein he proposed commemorating the first anniversary of the armistice that brought World War I to an end on November 11, 1918 with a moment of silence. "Five little minutes only," he wrote. "Five silent minutes of national remembrance."

Honey, who had briefly served in the British army during WWI before he was discharged due to a leg injury, watched Londoners boisterously celebrate the end of the war and thought instead that a silent commemoration of the lives lost would be a more apt way to mark the anniversary in subsequent years.

Though it appears Honey's message didn't immediately take hold, a similar sentiment was brought by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick to the attention of King George V, who made it official on November 17, 1919. In his official proclamation, the monarch said, "On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities. ... So that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead."

While many Americans still observe that original moment of silence on what is known in the U.S. as Veterans Day, holding a moment of silence is now a common form of expression to mark tragic events. The practice grew in prevalence as the U.S. underwent a cultural shift toward a more non-denominational nation, says Noah Feldman, a constitutional scholar at Harvard University. Around the same time as prayer was taken out of public schools by 1962's Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale, moments of silence began cropping up as a replacement. Though the Supreme Court ruled in 1985's Wallace v. Jaffree that the act of holding a moment of silence in classrooms was unconstitutional if there was an overt religious purpose, moments of silence — religious or not — among adults who willingly participate are accepted across the U.S.

Now moments of silence are observed everywhere from hockey games, where fans sometimes pause to honor fallen soldiers from their communities, to the yearly 9/11 commemoration at the World Trade Center. At that even, moments of silence are observed at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. to mark when the planes struck each tower and again at 9:59 a.m. and 10:29 a.m. to mark when each tower fell. While still vaguely religious, the strength of a moment of silence is that it crosses all boundaries and backgrounds. "No one objects to silence," Feldman told TIME. "You can include everyone — that's a very American idea." Uniting people together in their sorrow, a moment of silence seems to illustrate the sentiment felt by many in times of tragedy: an attack on one is an attack on all.