Jay D. Aronson’s Who Owns the Dead? tells the story of the recovery, identification, and memorialization of those killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The assault came at just the moment in history when large-scale DNA identification efforts were becoming possible, and innovations in biotechnology and forensic science led NYC’s Chief Medical Examiner to pledge the identification and return of all human remains discovered in the wreckage of Ground Zero. This massive and monumentally difficult task—the largest and most costly forensic investigation in history—was undertaken not just for the victims’ families, but also for a range of social, cultural, and political reasons that have contributed to fifteen years of contention and debate both within the community of families and between families and officials responsible for finding, identifying, and memorializing the dead.
In interweaving the forensic identification effort with the vexed planning for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Aronson demonstrates America’s struggle with the fraught composite of private and public grief that’s regularly visited upon other parts of the world. His book’s closing thoughts are below.
On the evening before the National September 11 Memorial and Museum formally opened to the public, donors and corporate supporters were fêted with a cocktail party to recognize their contributions to making the museum possible. For relatives who had labored tirelessly to ensure the creation of a museum that honored the memory of their loved ones, the party was a culmination of more than a decade of advocacy and planning. For relatives who opposed the museum plans and had worked so hard to bring victims’ remains above ground, the party was an outrage. The event added to their sense that the people who planned and financed the memorial and museum were more concerned about their own legacies than the feelings of those who lost family and friends on September 11. The dead, it seemed to some, belonged first and foremost to the powerful.
The insult of having victims’ remains stored in the basement of the museum, and the perception that those remains were being used to entice tourists to pay for entrance, was too much to bear. For Rosemary Cain, mother of firefighter George Cain, museum officials were “grave robbers” using the remains of World Trade Center victims for “greed and ego,” not to uplift the nation or provide solace to those in mourning. For Jim Riches, the presence of remains in the repository would keep him away. “I’ll never set foot in that museum,” he insisted, “until those remains are out of there and above grade on a plaza in a respectful place where it’s open to all the public to go for free.”
Thus, in the end, the situation appears to be stuck in a web of competing interests and viewpoints. One can imagine many different outcomes, but there is no simple solution to the storage of the remains of World Trade Center victims that will satisfy every one. Sites similar to the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum—Srebrenica, Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Hiroshima—did not have to weigh the need to memorialize against the need to redevelop and revitalize the surroundings in the stark terms that confronted the stakeholders at the World Trade Center site. While dissenting families offered alternative locations for the storage of remains, the city dismissed them as being impractical.
Ultimately, the dispute about the storage of remains points to the fact that the new scientific identification techniques being developed in the context of the September 11 attacks and other mass fatality events are a double-edged sword. They promise, at least in theory, to eliminate the possibility of identifiable remains being left unidentified. But the same advances in identification techniques mean that remains must be cared for and kept present, both physically and in the minds of surviving relatives and society at large, until they can be identified. In her letter to 9/11 families regarding the transfer of remains to the repository, acting chief medical examiner Barbara A. Sampson, who took over from Charles Hirsch when he retired at the end of 2014, reiterated the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME)’s commitment to “do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to identify all those who lost their lives.” Thus, the remains of the World Trade Center attacks can never fully be laid to rest and become part of “the past.”
We may be less prone to forget these remains, and the victims to whom they belong, but sometimes the receding from view of those who have died makes it easier to get on with life. There should not be a “statute of limitations” on mourning or grief, but it is important to at least consider the implications of an identification effort without end. When, if ever, do families and society benefit from saying that the identification phase of an operation is over and that unidentified tissue will remain so indefinitely? In the case of the World Trade Center victims, such a decision would have altered the plan to store remains within the museum because there would have been no requirement that they be permanently accessible by the OCME. It would at least have provided more clarity. “Every thing seems jarring and contradictory” at the museum, write historians Charles B. Strozier and Scott Gabriel Knowles. “It will be, but also won’t be, a cemetery. . . . And how exactly are visitors expected to behave knowing that the unknown dead from that day remain just behind the wall?”
Unfortunately, there is no satisfying answer to this question. This uncertainty results when grief and mourning intersect with the inherently messy, political process of memorialization. The recovery, identification, and memorialization of the victims of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks certainly could have been improved on many levels. It is unlikely, though, that any alternative would have been satisfactory to everyone.
With time, the political and emotional battles surrounding the remains of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks will recede from view. My goal has been to make sense of these disputes, especially the viewpoints of the relatively small subset of families who disagreed publicly with the actions of city officials and memorial and museum personnel, without passing judgment. Readers will have to decide if these families’ concerns were legitimate or not, and if city officials and other powerful figures lived up to their ethical and civic responsibilities. Answers to these questions will depend on each reader’s relationship to the events of September 11 and mass violence generally, their education and life experiences, and their personal views on trauma and grief. Perhaps at some future date, the answers to these questions will be more clear-cut, or at least more settled, but that moment has not yet come.
What is clear is that DNA technology has irrevocably altered the way we memorialize the dead, whether their remains have been identified or not. Whereas a tomb of the unknown, a war memorial, or a common burial ground valorizes collective sacrifice to the nation, the repository in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum is the physical embodiment of the technological dream that unidentified remains may one day be made personal again, and returned to their families. The repository is not a final resting place, even though many of the remains will never be claimed. Rather, it is a storage facility, albeit a dignified one, supporting an ongoing forensic investigation by a government scientific laboratory.
This effort certainly demonstrates the OCME’s and the city’s ongoing commitment to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks and their families. But nagging questions remain. Are victims’ families, their communities, and the nation well-served by the continuation of the identification effort? For some families, continued testing may mean the return of yet another fragment of tissue—perhaps a finger, bone sliver, or a bit of muscle—to go along with the other body parts that have already been returned. The effect of such recoveries on families is impossible to generalize.
But for the families of the 1,113 victims who have not yet received any remains, this unending identification effort may eventually yield the first definitive proof that their loved one perished in the attack, to compliment the administrative determination of death issued in the months after the attack. In March 2015, Matthew David Yarnell, a twenty-six-year-old employee of Fiduciary Trust and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where I teach, became the latest victim to be identified. In an interview with CNN, his mother, Michelle Yarnell, said that the identification initially “opened up all of the old wounds and old pains,” but that it ultimately allowed her family to “finally put every thing to rest.”
Other than the undocumented immigrants never officially reported missing, it is unlikely that any of the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks suffered an anonymous death. Most victims, including Matthew Yarnell, are named on the parapets around the void and pictured in the museum, and Matthew’s mother has said in numerous interviews that they never doubted that he was killed in the attacks. Yet the thought of unidentified remains is unnerving, especially for a society that wants to believe it has the technical capacity to provide some measure of certainty in an uncertain world. Even after Matthew was identified, his mother found solace in the fact that the identification effort would continue in perpetuity. “The ME’s office is not going to give up,” she said. “I hope for everyone that lost a loved one there, that they’ll have that closure someday, and, hopefully, sooner rather than later.”
This sentiment seems particularly important in the aftermath of an attack that targeted ordinary people from all walks of life, religions, and national origins, and killed them as representatives of a monolithic United States. It is ironic, then, that the individualization of the victims of the World Trade Center has made it more politically palatable for the U.S. government to engage in a seemingly perpetual war that has created innumerable casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. One final uncomfortable question we might ask is whether the same kind of unending scientific effort will be taken to identify these victims. The answer highlights the inherently political nature of the deployment of genetic technologies on behalf of the victims of mass atrocity.