Victims’ families

Wednesday’s Guardian led, reasonably enough, with the suicide of Harold Shipman.

The headline,

though, splashed across the front page, was peculiar: "The final betrayal".

Here’s how the story started:

Just after 6am yesterday, Harold Shipman, described as a man addicted to

murder by the judge inquiring into his 23-year killing spree, wound one end

of a prison sheet round his neck and the other round the bars of his cell

and took his own life on the eve of his 58th birthday.

It was the final betrayal.

The Guardian clearly took the view that on the day of Shipman’s death, the

defining point of view was that of the victims’ families. They, after all, were

the ones who were "betrayed":

Jane Gaskill, daughter of one of Shipman’s victims, 68-year-old Bertha Moss,

said: "He has won again. He has taken the easy way out. He has controlled

us all the way through and he has controlled the last step and I hate him

for it."

What a horrible man this Shipman was! Not only did he murder at least 215 people,

but he also betrayed their families!

When I read something like this, I feel a screeching of ethical gears. Yes,

betraying victims’ families is a bad thing: we should all have compassion for

these people. But compared to one of the biggest killing sprees the world has

ever known? It’s not really up there on the scale.

The Guardian also reported

on the fact that Shipman’s wife would now be receiving a pension. Once again,

the victims’ families are trundled out:

Some relatives of his victims were said to be upset at hearing that she would

be receiving the money. Ann Alexander, the lawyer representing relatives of

many of Shipman’s victims, said: "The families that I have spoken to

are deeply uncomfortable with this."

Anybody associated with the WTC, of course, knows what it’s like to be guilt-tripped

by victims’ families, who seem to have more control over the rebuilding of the

World Trade Center site than even Daniel Libeskind. It was the victims’ families,

for instance, who more or less forced the WTC footprints to be treated as "sacred",

thereby essentially dictating the overall site plan. They also forced the memorial

designers to go down to bedrock (that’s "sacred", too), include an

area with relics from the disaster, and even include a special room in the memorial

just for them. They also managed to frame the terms of the debate, making it

clear that the more acreage that was given over to the memorial, the happier

they would be. Never mind the quality, feel the width!

Oh, yes, and they also got $5.2 billion of federal funds in compensation for

their family members’ having been killed. In my last posting I complained about

the enormity the $1.5 billion that Bush is intending to spend on marriage: that

sum is dwarfed by the amount he’s already spent on WTC victims’ families, and

which, of course, comes on top of enormous life-insurance and charitable contributions

the families also received.

It seems that when lots of people lose their lives in a headline-grabbing event,

the families first receive sympathy, then are told that nothing can possibly

compensate them for the loss they have suffered, and then finally everybody

starts, well, trying to compensate them for the loss they have suffered –

if not with money, then by making every effort to give their opinions on anything

to do with the tragedy much more weight than everybody else’s.

The upshot of this is that we essentially get a hereditary system of control

over enormously important matters such as the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.

And just as there are good kings and bad, there are useful victims’ family members,

and then there are ones who are, well, not so useful.

Sometimes, as in the case of Pan Am flight 103 and Jim Swire, the spokesman

for UK relatives in Lockerbie, the victims’ families end up playing an extremely

important role in a very professional manner. At other times, we get quotes

like this one, from Anthony Gardner, a member of a coalition for WTC victims’

families, on the subject of the proposed memorial:

"This is minimalism, and you can’t minimalize the impact and the enormity

of Sept. 11," Gardner said. "You can’t minimalize the deaths. You

can’t minimalize the response of New Yorkers."

Even so, criticizing family members is completely taboo. Everybody involved

in the WTC project, for instance, insists on referring to pretty much all the

victims as "heroes", even when they did nothing heroic. This pisses

off the family members of the uniformed personnel, who want their family

members singled out as being the real heroes of the day. A lot of them

received so much money in the wake of the tragedy that they have essentially

now become professional Family Members, spending vast amounts of their time

lobbying for whatever it is that they want to see on the site. Far from moving

on with their lives, they are stuck in September 11, 2001, reliving it over

and over again.

One word that frequently comes up in such discussions is "closure":

Shipman’s victims’ family members need him to describe what he did and why he

did it before they can achieve closure, or the WTC victims’ family members need

a place where unidentified remains are kept before they can achieve closure.

But I’m far from convinced that closure really exists in the kind of sense

that these family members seem to think it does. Even if it did, I’m pretty

sure it can’t be achieved through external, as opposed to internal, means. But

it’s taboo to say such things: the family members have become secular saints,

and anything they say must be given the fullest measure of respect, just because

of who is saying it. No one else in society has their words received so uncritically,

and I’m not sure that it does anybody any good in the long term.

Certainly, its very far from edifying to see a 9/11 firefighter’s widow splashed

all over the front page of the New York post for taking up with another, married,

firefighter. The saint is in fact a sinner! We all know that the tabloids love

to raise people up only to knock them down again, but adulterous affairs happen

the whole time, and this is only news because it’s based on the erroneous assumption

that as a Victim’s Family Member, she was somehow raised up to a higher level

to start with.

I think that this deification of the family members is actually a byproduct

of our media-saturated society. After all, people die tragically every day,

in car accidents or from rare diseases, and the deaths reverberate in their

families for years. But those families don’t get kowtowed to in the national

press, don’t get to tell the rest of the world what’s sacred and what isn’t,

don’t dictate front-page headlines in sensible papers like the Guardian. It’s

only when the tragedy makes news headlines that the transformation occurs.

Wouldn’t it be great if news organisations pledged not to quote victims’ family

members unless they say something useful and/or interesting? If they realised

that such people simply don’t have privileged access to the truth? But that

will never happen. The family members would never stand for such a policy.

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1 Response to Victims’ families

  1. Robert Kornfeld says:

    The family members’ opinions concerning the significance of the tower footprints were supported by all of the preservation groups that were part of the federal review, including the National Trust, the World Monuments Fund, the State Preservation League and the New York City groups, and the opinion was shared by the State Historic Preservation Office and fereral officials.

    For those who had the access and understanding to evaluate the resources at the site, it was plainly obvious that the tower footprints were an historic site just like all the ruins that we visit as tourists in Europe. It would have been absurd to destroy the actual footprints in order to build ersatz footprints as a memorial. The voids at the surface and the actual column bases and damaged concrete slabs at the museum level can coexist and add up to a more meaningful memorial than either by itself.

    The real issue was not the jury, it was how the memorial guidelines were written in the first place, which more-or-less dictated the plan, and which were carefully written to define the “footprints” as the voids at grade, not at bedrock level. This was nexed in the historic review.

    If you look at Libeskind’s original design (see his book) it was all about bedrock and the footprints. That was taken out of it to comply with the memorial guidelines. The family members supported the original version and were bertrayed when it was changed at the last minute. They were intentionally misled and that is why they were crying foul. You should learn the facts before throwing stones at them.

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