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Issue Date:  September 8, 2006

Remembering the victims of Sept. 10


On Sept. 11, 2001, about 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. On the fifth anniversary of their deaths, the nation will stop again to mourn. Around the country -- even around the world -- people will bow their heads in silence, remembering the dead.

Memorial quilt displays the weekend before and candlelight vigils later in the day will bracket the televised service. In New York City, surviving spouses and partners will read aloud the victims’ names. Clutching pictures of those lost that terrible day, family members will lay flowers at the World Trade Center site. They will weep and cling to each other, giving and receiving comfort in remembrance, drawing strength from knowing that they are not alone.

With all these planned activities, it is easy to forget that Sept. 11 is not the only fifth anniversary this month. On Sept. 10, 2001, the day before those terrorist attacks, 6,700 people died in the United States, assuming it was an average day for mortality. Five years later, only their families and friends will mark the anniversary, and they will do so alone, in private, each coping with their grief in their own way.

There are no national monuments to the dead of Sept. 10, no televised commemorative services, no international attention or community events, for 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, or sheer weariness in old age. They died from what should be preventable causes: traffic and other accidents, murder and 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 among strangers; some alone.

Unlike the Sept. 11 victims, who were overwhelmingly of working age, the Sept. 10 dead were all ages; about 75 of them contributed to the country’s infant mortality rate. Others 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 crossfire 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 with unhappy histories of failure and loss. Some died with their music still in them, as Oliver Wendell Holmes lamented, while others’ songs can still be heard in their communities, loud and clear.

If the victims don’t fall into a tidy group, neither do their survivors offer us anything to hang onto. Most knew of their loss immediately, in circumstances offering little scope for denial. They did not wander the streets, posting pictures and hoping against hope for good news. Instead, they went quietly about the business of burying their dead and wrapping up the affairs of the life just ended.

Every culture responds to death with ritualized 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 the Sept. 11 dead as a group because they were clearly victims of a concerted attack, even though the enemy is not as clear. Remembering the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, we unveil plaques for those who lost their lives in the storm.

Even as we respond publicly to these defining events, let us also remember privately the everyday deaths in our neighborhoods and communities and their ongoing ripples. 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 carries the memory of a loved one, the pain of the most ultimate loss we can experience and the sure knowledge of more to come. It is our inescapable burden as self-aware beings. This year, after we dry our tears for the Sept. 11 dead, let us see more clearly that all grieve and reach out in new ways to our fellows, in the name of the victims of Sept. 10.

Isabel Gibson is a management consultant and freelance writer who lives in Canada.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006

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