A Hierarchy of Death

American life may be classless, but death brings a hierarchy all its own. The War Dead are the celebrities of the departed, their names carved into the walls of monuments and read out in public ceremonies. They are a special class, singled out for special attention and praise. Across the nation today, the War Dead of last September are being remembered in myriad ceremonies. Gov. George Pataki of New York will read the Gettysburg Address at Ground Zero today, leaving no question that these are, indeed, the War Dead whom we remember.

Why do the War Dead get so much attention? They cannot enjoy it. Their families and friends deserve sympathy, but for the same reason all those who lost loved ones deserve sympathy.

The entire nation is focused today on the dead so that we, the living, might continue to ignore an unpleasant truth. That truth, the awkward secret lurking behind this day’s solemn pomp, is that the dead of last September died for no reason at all. The search for meaning, what might crassly be called “closure,” is doomed to fail. These dead have died in vain.

But no, many argue, they died for freedom. They died for the American way of life. There are two problems with this argument. First, American freedom has been weakened since the attacks by Attorney General John Ashcroft and his lackeys. Citizens were prepared to give up some liberties for the sake of safety, but those few liberties have turned out to be the most sacred. American citizens have been arrested and held in isolation by the government as “enemy combatants,” a legal fiction that has somehow trumped the Constitution. Other Americans have been singled out for scrutiny solely because of their ethnic background. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and his coterie of activist justices just do not care as long as states’ rights are upheld. At the nation’s leading university, a commencement-day speaker who wanted to tell of his experience as a Muslim American came under ruthless attack as an apologist for terrorists. Fellow students who should have respectfully listened to his words—even if they disagreed—launched a highly organized, highly personal attack against him. His speech, once entitled “American Jihad,” in the end proved innocuous even to the most rabid skeptics. But the furor showed how the political demands of America’s war obfuscate clear thinking about that clear morning last September.

Second, the dead cannot be said to have died “for” anything other than the delusions of a small group of madmen. They are not casualties of a war but victims of murder. It disrespects their memories to remember them any other way. The firefighters who lost their lives in New York died in an attempt to save others, but their ultimate ends were the work of a handful of religiously drunk men whose purpose was death itself. The attackers had no tactical or strategic goal other than death. The targets, although large, were not crucial to America’s ability to fight back. The dead of last September were murdered in an act of senseless, unprovoked violence for which there is no justification and no explanation.

If the dead were murdered in a senseless act of violence, in what sense can they be considered heroes? This American dilemma is familiar to Israel, too. Should the victims of a suicide bomber be lionized as war dead, or mourned as the unfortunate victims of a freak accident? The honest answer is that the dead were murdered not in the service of their nation, but in going about their daily lives. They are not War Dead, but victims of murder, each of whom deserves a private, personal memorial from friends and family.

The purpose of declaring the victims War Dead, therefore, is not to honor the individual dead, but to give fresh determination to the living that the American war on terrorism is, indeed, a cause for spilling more blood. The hierarchy of the dead serves to reinforce the militancy and vindictiveness that have driven the policies of our nation’s unelected hereditary ruler. He has used the patriotic rage to prop up or to bully fellow unelected leaders who have allowed their citizens to indulge in an irrational hatred of America. But as long as those leaders remain pliant providers of oil to America, they are exempted from military reprisal. The president has used the “patriotism card” to keep political opponents running and prevent them from delivering much-needed criticism of the government’s behavior. As Americans buck under intrusive security measures, the leaders of al Qaeda roam free.

Despite President Bush’s impure motives, his war has so far done much good for the liberated Afghans. And the genocidal regime in Baghdad will soon be crushed by what can only be called the benevolent fist of the American Empire. But if the Sept. 11 attacks were the cause for these wars, they should not be made the justification. I hope that the orations delivered over the dead today self-consciously avoid linking the two.

To understand how the War Dead can be exploited, read the great funeral oration over them by Pericles, one of the most noted politicians of ancient Athens. Recorded in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, the speech brilliantly sets out reasons why Athenian democracy and openness made Athens superior to all other cities. We are righteous, Pericles argues; therefore, this war is right.

Athens entered the war with Sparta and its allies over a trade dispute. Within a generation, the glories of the Athenian Empire were in ruins, the democracy decimated in that fearsome war. Today, let us remember the dead. And let us remember that America, like Athens, may be righteous, but that does not mean we are right.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. He is associate editorial chair of The Crimson.