On Behalf of a Grateful Nation

BY BOBBY HALTON

How we treat one another in life is critical for developing good relationships. If you have respect for others, it shows in how you manage yourself and how you conduct your business both personally and professionally. How society treats someone’s memory when he passes is a testament to that person’s significance to society while he was alive. How society treats someone’s remains is also critically important to that person’s legacy and future significance to the society. That does not mean that occasionally someone who made tremendous contributions to society does not get treated inappropriately—quite the contrary, it happens more often than one would suspect. It is largely because of the social climate of the day. It is said that he who wins the war writes the history. A great example is Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Richard as a deformed hunchback with horrible character and ill intent. History tells us regarding Richard that nothing could be further from the truth.

In our own history, we have the example of our “missing founding father,” one of the most significant voices of the day during the American Revolution, the first man to use the word “independence” in his writing in reaction to the conflict on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord. He wrote a pamphlet in 1776 called “Common Sense”; he was responsible for saving the revolution when Washington’s army was falling apart at Valley Forge; it was his “The Crisis” that inspired the army and saved the revolution.

When he died in 1809, he was refused burial in the local Quaker cemetery because of his beliefs and the fact that he was strongly disliked by most of his contemporary founding fathers, so he was buried on his farm. Thomas Paine incited the discussions on freedom and liberty that motivated our ancestors to break away from England; he inspired the British Reform Act and helped bring liberty to France. So why isn’t his gravesite a national monument?

Tragically, William Cobbett, a Paine fan, believed that America had disrespected Paine’s memory, so he dug up Paine’s body and returned it to England, where he planned to build a monument. But Cobbett had no success raising money for the monument, and so Paine’s body was put under Cobbett’s bed until Cobbett died in 1835. Then Cobbett’s son inherited the body, but eventually he lost the body. This is why today there is no gravesite monument for Thomas Paine, one of the most significant of our founding fathers.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes,” which brings us to today’s dilemma. In the brilliant article “The Disappeared” (Anthropology Today, June 2011), Chip Colwell-Chanthaphoh and Alice M. Greenwald draw a chilling analogy between Achilles’ disrespect of Hector’s body in the Iliad and the treatment by the folks running the 9/11 museum and memorial of the human remains of the 9/11 victims murdered at the WTC. Achilles angrily dragged Hector’s body in front of his grieving family for nine days, denying them the opportunity to properly bury and respect his memory. To many of the 9/11 families, New York City and the 9/11 memorial and museum folks, albeit possibly with the best of intentions, are doing the same thing.

When the original plans for the WTC site were explained in 2003, the museum and the memorial were to be separate and distinct. Everyone assumed the memorial, including the human remains repository, would be open and free to the public, a fitting and dignified open-air setting similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But in 2006, somehow the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and the 9/11 museum changed the plan and incorporated the two elements. They also somehow managed to arrange with the city that the 9,041 parts of unidentified remains of 2,749 victims killed on 9/11 would be interred within the museum. They plan to entomb them seven stories belowground, devastating family members, whose final memory is one of their beloved being buried alive in the rubble of “the pit.” It is horrifying to them that now their loved ones will be encased behind a wall with an epitaph chosen by the museum, a museum where visitors will have to buy tickets, paying to grieve. There, they will provide a “teaching lesson” for paying customers of the museum. To many families, Achilles’ behavior appears less egregious.

We also know with certainty that parts of bodies of the fallen are also scattered about the Fresh Kills landfill site, where WTC debris was hauled for disposal. To compound the families’ pain, lawyers, in a lawsuit, called the remains of their loved ones “dirt,” and they argued that because so many bodies were mixed together, no one could claim ownership. In that lawsuit, the families lost their right to bury their dead. God willing, another group representing 9/11 families can unite and claim ownership and keep the more than 9,000 unidentified human remains, now housed at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, out of the museum. Denying these families the opportunity to lay to rest their loved ones in a proper and dignified way is the height of bureaucratic arrogance. Here we have an opportunity as a nation to do what is morally required of us.

We must unite and stop the LMDC and the private 9/11 museum from profiting from the murders of our citizens, brethren, and guests. We must also demand that Fresh Kills become a National Monument and that a final resting place for the unidentified remains be erected where we all can go free of charge to pay our respects and pray for our fallen friends and family. Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey to teach. Paine wrote to inspire. We should honor them both with impassioned action. We must stop this commercial entombment of our fallen and allow the families to properly and honorably bury their lost loved ones.

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