Collateral Damage
by Lori Heine An excerpt from the book, A y of

An excerpt from the book, A Democracy of One.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 – a Tuesday, just like the day I was born – I awoke looking forward to the day.  It was my thirty-ninth birthday, and I had taken it off from work.  A friend from work and I were planning on meeting for lunch.  I got up late, had a little breakfast, then called in to the office to solidify our plans.

“Turn on the TV,” our supervisor told me.  Sounding strangely tense.

“Well, I usually don’t watch any this early in the day,” I said.  Wanting her to know I wasn’t one of those people who keep the boob tube on every waking hour.

“Just turn it on,” she insisted.  She seemed too distracted even to take a message for my friend.  I figured they had to be especially busy there without me, and I said I’d call again later.

I turned on the TV, obeying my supervisor even though it was my day off.  And there on the screen, I saw a building on fire.  Some private plane must have blundered into the heart of Manhattan and slammed into a tower of the World Trade Center.  The pilot would have been in terrible trouble – if he or she weren’t already very obviously dead. 

Then another plane – a regular commercial jetliner – plunged into the second tower.  I wondered, then, if by the end of the day my own city would be up in flames.

Other than early in the afternoon, when I went to Mass, I kept the boob tube on every waking hour that day.  The day stretched late into the night.  People were dying – too many to count.  My friend and I never did make it out to lunch.  She was too upset even to remember it was my birthday.  Come to think of it, so was I.

When I returned to work the next day, our supervisor warned me what to expect.  From now on, she said, my birthday would never be the same.  People would recoil at the very mention of that date.  And she knew what that was like.  Her own birthday was December seventh:  better known to the rest of the world as Pearl Harbor Day.

She was born after 1941, so she never really even had a birthday she could call her own.  She never got to really enjoy that innocent prsivilege before she lost it.

At first it seemed we’d never know how many died in those terrorist attacks of September 11, much less learn all their names or see their faces.  And yet we have.  There is something deep within us that couldn’t be satisfied until we heard or read those names, saw pictures of their faces and learned their stories.  It’s what makes us human, and if we didn’t need such closure we could be something slightly less.  Even though most of us had never known any of the victims, we felt the need to know about them – to know who they had been.

Before they all melded together into The Hallowed Dead of 9-11, each and every one of them were people.  Each was a unique and irreplaceable individual.  We’re still recalling the names and telling the stories of those who died when the Titanic went down, 104 years earlier.  There is something about us that must remember – that dares not forget.  That many of those who perished in the sinking of that great ship were trapped in steerage below decks, some of their names never to be known because they were not recorded, we feel, at some level, as an outrage against us all.

A character was even invented, in the 1997 movie made about the shipwreck, to satisfy a little of that outrage.  Jack Dawson.  Jack’s story finally gets told, decades later, by the woman who has never stopped loving him, and as the ocean floor is swept for traces of the lost ship’s glory, we learn what happened to him.  That was only fiction, of course, but it makes us feel somewhat better just to have a made-up name by which we can remember all those names that have been lost.

We don’t want to be lost.  For our names to be forgotten.  No one does.  It is a horror, in some ways, almost as bad as never having been born.  Each of us is an individual, and each of us wants – needs – to be counted. 

Events beyond our control make us feel small and powerless.  As if we don’t count.

The only casualty I personally suffered on September 11 of 2001 was my birthday.  It certainly wasn’t anything like losing the life of any loved one, much less my own.  But it was my birthday.  Try going without one sometime.  Or having it taken away.

None of the nearly 3,000 human beings who perished that day were real people to the terrorists who murdered them.  Not only did my birthday not matter to them, except in whatever sick, symbolic sense it was that led them to pick that day.  Hundreds of lives – and all the other lives that radiated outward from the tragedy – meant nothing to them.

In such a world, how does the human individual stand a chance?

The Age of the Individual may well be dead.  It could be that we’ll never be anything more than numbers in some computer database, or casualties in a cataclysm.  “Collateral damage.”  That is how many people in this world – perhaps most – think of annihilated individuals already.  Or, at least, it seems the mentality of the few who are aware of them at all.

But if we start thinking of ourselves that way, we are worse than dead.  To think of another person as anything less than an individual – totally unique, a spark of divine fire – is nothing short of murder.  To think of oneself that way is suicide.  Who would wish oneself into nonentity, willingly seeing oneself as nothing? If we see ourselves as anything less than the one-of-a-kind, never-seen-before and never-here-again individuals that we are, that is exactly what we’re doing.

We are disappearing one another.  And when we conform to such a system, we are disappearing ourselves.

Since that fateful day in 2001, whenever anyone asks me what my birthday is, I have to take a deep breath.  Here it comes again.  “September the eleventh,” I tell them, bracing myself for the inevitable response.

“Eeeeewww,” comes the cry.  “You’ve got to be kidding me! Oh, you poor thing!” Followed, almost immediately, by “Why don’t you change it?”

But how can you change your birthday? You can’t, really – without undoing your very birth.

I got The Reaction again just today, as I made my airplane reservations.  According to my travel agent, the Almighty TSA now needs to know my birthday – along with just about everything else about me.  September 11, 2001 did indeed change our lives in countless ways.

Was the significance of those who died on that day that they were killed in a huge and historically-newsworthy terrorist attack? If any one of them had departed this earth that same day in an obscure traffic accident, would that have made him or her less significant – less important – as a human being? Would it have made any one of their lives one iota less meaningful? We seem to believe that some societal collective must acknowledge our existence in order to make us real.

When Jared Lee Loughner gunned down twenty people in Tucson in January of 2011, killing six of them, was that his bid for significance? Did his instant notoriety make it all worthwhile? Would the little girl he killed, Christina Taylor Green, have died any less tragically had she not been born on September 11 of 2001?

What have we done? Really, what have we all done?

I refuse to change the day I commemorate my birth.  Thousands of people die every year on whichever date I might choose instead.  Are they any less worthy of respect because their deaths didn’t make the news?

How did I come by my conviction that each and every individual matters? Including you? Including me? It has been a long and sometimes very strange journey, and it has taken years.

What we, as a society, have done has been to diminish our estimation of an individual human being’s worth to such a pathetic degree that a few troubled souls are actually willing to commit mass murder in order to be singled out.  That – they think – is what it takes to count for anything.  And it isn’t hard to see where they got that idea.

What is the scourge of terrorism itself if not the liquidation of human life – on the most massive possible scale – for the sake of making a statement? Of being seen, at least by some twisted souls, as some sort of a hero? Of proving a point?

Literally millions of people have now sunk to the level of believing that God is pleased when “His” own creatures – made in “His” image – are rubbed out like cockroaches.  Really, how much lower can we go?

If we cannot remember that each and every human individual is sacred, utterly irreplaceable and unique, we will very likely end up annihilating the whole human race.  What, indeed, is the most effective means we’ve ever developed for mass murder-suicide, the atomic bomb, if not the ultimate denial of individual human dignity?

I didn’t suffer a scratch on September 11 of 2001.  Even by six degrees of separation, I doubt I could find a link between myself and anyone who died in the attacks against this country that day.  Yet I felt as if I had been, somehow, erased.  I certainly don’t expect anybody to cry over it; I didn’t shed any tears (at least not over my birthday, per se) myself.  But the loss I suffered – though perhaps laughably insignificant compared to the one suffered by those who died or lost loved ones that day – felt nonetheless real.

The fact that the tragedy happened on my birthday made it personal for me in a sense that probably wasn’t true for others as otherwise removed from it as I.  I would get along just fine if I changed the day I celebrate my birth to a different little square on the calendar.  But the fact that it happened that day, of all days, made me think about the issues I’ve articulated here.  In the fifteen years since, many things have happened to keep me thinking about them.

In another well-loved movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart laments that he was ever born.  “Okay,” replies his guardian, Angel First Class Clarence Oddbody.  “You’ve got your wish.  You’ve never been born.”

A chill wind blows through the room, sweeping the identity of Stewart’s character, George Bailey, out the door with it.  And for much of the rest of the movie, George gets the chance to see what the world would have been like without him.  He decides he likes nothing about that alternative.

We all know how it comes out.  George gets another chance to be, he rejoices even that his mouth is bleeding, and he finds little daughter Zuzu’s flower petals in his pocket.  Those small things are the sweetest tidings in the world, because they are proof to him that, indeed, he is. 

We feel better, too, because we want everybody to be.  Even those who never were, because a Hollywood writer made them up.  It’s why we love the movies.  It’s how we can come to love people who, really and truly, never were born.

Something in us needs that.  Being human means having a name.  It means being counted.  Instinctively, we recoil even when the names of others – those of total strangers – are not counted.  A world in which human beings may live and thrive must be a world in which people are counted.

On my way to church on September 11 of 2001, I passed a convenience store.  These were the days before everybody had a cellphone, and a young man was trying to reach somebody on the pay phone outside.  I remember him, in a fit of total frustration, banging the receiver of that phone against the side of the enclosure again and again and again.  He may merely have been having a fight with someone.  But given all that was happening that day, it was likely he was desperate to find out if that someone was still alive.

It matters whether we live or die – that we were even born – because we matter.  It’s what makes living, and having been born, worthwhile at all.  There could never be any substitute for that.  May we each do our part to make certain that no substitute is ever accepted.


© 2016 Lori Heine

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