Commentary: Remembrance

It's been an emotional week of remembrances for the New York City area. But WNYC's Brian Lehrer says sad as this week may have been, it also highlights something to be thankful for that we may take for granted.

For most people, the emotional peak of Wednesday's memorials was the reading of the names of the dead at Ground Zero. Before Wednesday, media coverage focused largely on the Gettysburg Address, and whether that was the right text to put at the center of the ceremonies. But Lincoln's great speech turned out to be almost irrelevant.

If any healing took place on Wednesday, for many of us it was delivered through the combined power of the diversity of the names, the humanity of the voices, and the beauty of the music performed by the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Sharon Isbin and the Juilliard String Quartet.

For a moment at least, each World Trade Center victim was a VIP.

But the poignancy of that memorial was also a reminder for me of how privileged most of us are to live in this country, at this time.

Specifically, we have the luxury of preciousness of life.

Consider a few other times and places:

In Congo, a 20 year civil war is just now coming to an end. They have no hope of even getting an accurate count of the dead. Most estimates range from two to three million. Who's going to choreograph the reading of those names? And which world-class musicians will accompany it?

For Israelis and Palestinians, how many separate instances of terrorist attacks and military reprisals have there been, just in the last year? If either side wanted to commemorate as we did on Wednesday, what date would they choose? Which destroyed homes or buildings would they sacralize? How many can they set aside as too special to rebuild?

And how many in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has dropped more than 20,000 bombs in pursuit of Al Quaeda?

What's more, September 11th is transforming global politics to try and make sure it doesn't happen again. But how many people were already known to have been slaughtered in Rwanda when world leaders made the decision not to intervene there?

Even the words Ground Zero now give me pause. Before this attack, Ground Zero was a term applied only to the spots where the nuclear bombs landed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands.

Is there another conclusion to draw but that life in this place at this time has become more precious than probably anywhere ever?

I raise all of this not to minimize what the 9/11 murderers did, or to discourage a response - just to offer some perspective on how lucky we are that our individual lives can be considered so valuable. And not just by our loved ones, but by society as a whole.

If that gives us a little guilt, that's okay too. We should at least contrast Thursday's UN debate over war against Iraq to this month's UN Summit on Sustainable Development. The headline number there: 30,000 children die per day in this world, from diseases that are largely preventable. No "potential for this" or "what if that" like in the Iraq debate. This is happening now. Where's the equivalent response, or the equivalent sense of urgency?

But in a society like ours, where starvation and violence are rare, medicine and political power plentiful, our relationship with longevity is transformed. Old age, a rarity in many countries, comes to be viewed as a right.

If there's another terrorist attack, or two or three, that claim another 3000 souls on U.S. soil, will we treat each attack like Sept. 11th? Probably not. Let's hope we never have to find out. But for now at least, as we mourn our dead and mount our homeland defense, we have the luxury of preciousness of life. It's something to be thankful for, and to strive to expand.