7/07/2006

The Office

There's a debate raging at Ground Zero about how the names of the dead should be listed. First of all, they need not be. You know, we've gone about as far as you can go with individualizing monuments to mass atrocities. It started with the brilliantly stark, perfectly appropriate Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin, and has morphed into the tacky chairs in Oklahoma City, with more to come at the Pentagon.

The controversy at Ground Zero--and it is becoming a bloody one--has to do with how the names of the dead should be listed. Representatives of the families of the dead seem to overwhelmingly oppose a random listing (with an alphabetically-arranged guide to help visitors to the site find the names), and are even divided on listing them alphabetically. They seem to mostly favor, in the words of one victim's mother: "listing them by who they were affiliated with at the time of their death. Stating where they worked or what they were doing that morning gives more individuality to their lives than a hodgepodge of 2,979 names."

I'm here to tell you, no, it doesn't. At least not to non-family members. I mean, maybe it is important for the families that we all know where their loved ones worked. I can't imagine why it would be in the big picture.

I think it's a piece with the appalling government buy-off of the victims' families in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe. Compensation, you will recall, was linked to projected income. A monetary value was set on each individual life, and you can bet the cleaning staff's weren't worth what a top exec's was. America found a way to make even death, the great equalizer, see dollar signs. But this should surprise no one. The first thing all of America was urged by our President to do in the wake of the disaster was to "buy something, no matter how small." Talk about retail therapy.

This is yet another sad, sad reminder of what these days defines the indefinable individual to even those closest to them.

I, personally, would be horrified to think that my family would remember me chiefly as an employee of a corporation, that finding meaning in my death would be linked to thinking of me in the office killing time surfing the net, sending faxes, hiding from an irritating coworker, or day-dreaming about my weekend, when the airplane struck my office building. Work is something you do. It is not who you are. It certainly doesn't make you any more individual than a name, or necessarily lend your life special significance.

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