Two weeks after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that the rescue efforts would continue but it was unlikely that, short of a miracle, more survivors would be found. Given the intensity of the fires fed by jet fuel and the speed of the twin towers’ collapse, it is also unlikely that many of the dead will be found. Few intact bodies have been extracted from the rubble. The New York City medical examiner’s office, nonetheless, has said that it will work to identify and return to grieving families the remains of the dead. The task is immense. More than six thousand people are missing, while only 152 of those found dead had been identified as of September 24, the day of the mayor’s statement.

This mammoth undertaking is conceivable because DNA matching by high-speed computers can be carried out on relatively small tissue samples. To that end, rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center are sifting the debris for body parts while families and physicians are turning over dental records, tissue samples, toothbrushes, and other personal items that may provide the match to the recovered remains. Given the level of destruction and the emergence of other critical needs, this painful, complex, and costly effort could seem grotesque; yet, given the wound to so many families, such an undertaking has come to seem utterly necessary.

Even so, the scale of the medical examiner’s effort in New York is nearly impossible to grasp. That’s why a brief account in the New York Times (September 22), of the parallel work of the coroner in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, helps bring the work into human perspective. Shanksville is the crash site of the fourth hijacked plane, United Flight 93, apparently thwarted in its terrorist mission by passengers who seized control of the plane before it could strike its target. The giant 757, carrying forty-four people, crashed at 500 miles an hour into a reclaimed strip mine. Wallace E. Miller, the coroner, arrived as the fires were being doused. He saw neither blood nor bodies. It was as if, he said, "the passengers had been dropped off somewhere." Nonetheless, he is doing his best to identify the remains that are being sorted from the debris. He hopes, he says, to give each family a sealed coffin with the remains he is working so hard to identify.

Miller is also the local undertaker and seems to have both an intuitive and mystical sense of how critically important his work is. "People all the time want to see remains," he says, "no matter how horribly disfigured they may be. It’s incredible, the power of that." He regards the crash site as sacred ground and says a prayer there each day. Of his own efforts, he says, "You’re working out of respect for the memory of that soul and for the families. I grieve more for the families that miss the person. I believe the souls are better off."

The medical examiner’s office in New York City is unlikely to express itself in that kind of language, but those forensic scientists and Coroner Miller both make possible an essential act of familial and communal piety, burying the dead. The wailing of the pipes, the weeping of widows and widowers, mothers and fathers, the cries of thousands and thousands of children will ripple through the city and its suburbs, through parishes and congregations, across the land and around the world-more than sixty countries are represented among the missing. Burying the dead and lamenting their departure is among the oldest of human responsibilities and instincts-so Antigone affirms in burying her brother Polynices, defying the command of the king, "I gave reverence to what claims reverence."

A terrible price is being exacted for these terrorist attacks in all of the families and friendships broken by deaths so horrible and unexpected. Nor does the suffering end there. Just in the narrow confines of Manhattan, thousands of people, often the lowest paid workers, have been laid off. Across the country, uncertainty and a weakening economy will take its toll-and so will all those measures designed to prevent further terrorist attacks. The terrorists may have achieved far more than they could have imagined. That is why the American response is so important.

In his September 20 address to Congress, President George W. Bush, said "Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Justice must be done. Exactly how that will be accomplished remains unclear, and is likely to remain so for some time to come.

The administration’s rhetoric has become more measured since the days following the attack. The president’s speech seemed more congruent with a long, intense, and complex international police action than with the "crusade" he called for early on. He has promised to "meet violence with patient justice." And, we hope, prudent justice.

There is a lesson to be drawn from September 11-a lesson that blessedly few Americans have ever had to learn. This may not be a war in the traditional understanding of the term, but we have suffered grave civilian casualties. Now we know that civilian casualties happen to real people and leave behind unbearable suffering. We should guard against inflicting it on others.

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Published in the 2001-10-12 issue: View Contents
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