On 11 September 2001, about 3000 people died in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Today, on the 10th anniversary, their nation stops again to mourn those 9/11 victims. People around the country—and even in other countries, like Canada—will stand with heads bowed in a moment of silence, remembering the dead. In New York, the National September 11 Memorial will open. Set in an eight-acre Memorial Plaza with more than 300 trees, two pools cover the footprints of the Twin Towers and are graced with the country’s largest artificial waterfalls. The pool edges are inscribed with the names of those killed. Their family members will give and receive comfort in the act of remembrance, drawing strength from knowing that they are not alone.
On 11 September 2001, about 6700 other people died in the United States, assuming it was an average day for mortality. Ten years later, only their families and friends mark the anniversary, and they do so alone, in private, each coping with their grief in their own way.
There are no national monuments to these other dead from 9/11, no televised annual memorial services, no newspaper retrospectives, no international attention, because they offer us no way to think about them as a group. They did not die in an attack on the United States, nor for any other cause that might stir our souls. Instead, they died in the normal course of events, as part of the normal wear and tear of life as we know it.
They died from the many ills that flesh is heir to: catastrophic, shocking illness in youth; gradually debilitating conditions in middle age; sheer weariness in old age. They died from what should have been preventable causes: car crashes and other accidents, murder, suicide. They died in every region, state and community; they died at home, in hospitals, on the street. Some died with family around them; some died among strangers; some died alone.
Unlike the 9/11 terrorist victims, who were overwhelmingly of working age, they were all ages; about 75 of them contributed to the country’s infant mortality rate. They bore varying levels of responsibility for the manner and timing of their deaths: some made consistently poor choices, some did everything right but had bad luck in the genetic lottery. Some were targeted by murderers; some were caught in the cross-fire of modern life. Some threw away their lives; some gave their lives to save others. Some died with great accomplishments to their credit; some with small victories. Some died with their music still inside them, as lamented by Oliver Wendell Holmes; some lived the lives they were meant to live, expressed the uniqueness that will never be seen again.
Their survivors offer us nothing to hang onto, either. They knew of their loss immediately, most of them. They did not wander the streets of our cities, posting pictures and hoping against hope for good news. Instead, they went quietly about the business of burying their dead, and wrapping up their affairs.
Every human culture responds to death with rituals of respect. In 21st century North America, we conduct public memorials for the dead in some cases but not in all. War in all its forms and so-called Acts of God catch our imagination in a way that life’s steady attrition does not. We mourn one 9/11 group because they were clearly victims of a concerted attack, even though the enemy is not as clear; we memorialized Hurricane Katrina’s victims in the same way.
Even as we respond publicly to these large-scale, identifiable events—a natural, human impulse that need not be faulted or suppressed—let us also remember privately the everyday deaths in our neighbourhoods and communities and the ongoing ripples from those deaths. But where the focus in memorials is on the dead, let the focus in our daily interactions be on the living. As John D. MacDonald wrote, We’re having some bad years for sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers and friends. The living are worth every final bit of love and energy you can toss into the kitty. The dead are worth tears.
Everyone we meet—everyone, every day—carries with them the memory of a loved one, the pain of the ultimate loss we can experience, the sure knowledge of more to come. It is part of our birthright as sentient beings, part of our inherent fragility.
After we weep with the families of the 9/11 terrorist dead, let us dry our tears and reach out in new ways to those around us, treating each other with the respect we so willingly give the dead.