Once in high school, my friend Penina relayed to me the following Bloomberg radio news report: Plane crash kills hundreds, airline stock falls. We're always receiving dehumanized reports of human disaster; this is a well examined aspect of contemporary life, one that stems in part from the urban and suburban concentration of the Earth's human population and that population's reliance on centralized technology. Today it's possible for numbers of people incomprehensible except as mere information, to be effected at once by a given event. The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while one of the most devastating crimes in recent memory, was not unique or unpredictable. And yet, because of the scale of the attack, The New York Times undertook to report the death of each victim as if he or she had been eminent enough to have earned one of that paper's actual obituaries. The effort resulted in a ambiguous work of humanizing propaganda that situated the individual victims within their society while superficially attempting to raise them above it. Each pseudo-obituary was a short sketch of roughly 200 words, compiled from interviews with a subject's family and friends, describing the subject's background, passions, and ambitions. The majority of the 3,000 dead were eventually profiled. The series was entitled Portraits of Grief, and it ran daily in the Times between September 15th and December 31st, 2001, and coninued to run once or twice weekly until September 10th, 2002. Times Books/Henry Holt has published a book containing the portraits that appeared in the paper through Feb. 3, and all of the portraits are available online at http://www.nytimes.com/pages/national/portraits/, where they will remain indefinitely.

Following the September 11th terrorist attack, the memory of its victims was hijacked for many causes. Most importantly, the victims' identity as Americans enabled their murder to be intended as well as received as an attack against America. That is, this confusion of Americans with America was a fallacy perpetuated by the terrorists as well as by the White House. It is debatable whether the subsuming of an individual into his or her nation denies that individual some discreet amount of personal identity or whether it merely supplies him or her with an additional label, so that an iconoclast defining him- or herself as not of the nation is no more of a complete person that a patriot defining him- or herself as of the nation. However, in the face of the popular iconography that followed the September 11th attacks, in which the victims graced patriotic bumper stickers and fast food restaurant marquees across the country and everyone suddenly loved New York City, the serious and somewhat elitist Times was expected to report on the victims' actual experiences and interests, instead of endeavoring to construct for them lives with which the American public could identify. Whether the paper can in fact be judged to have done so depends ultimately on the reader's assumptions about the it's reporting methodology and whether that reader can believe that a given portrait accurately reflects a victim's life, instead of that life as it was understood after the fact by the victim's loved ones and the particular reporter who approached them.

In fact, the Portraits as they emerged successfully avoid harping upon their subjects' status as Americans. Except in the case of vigorous apologetics for the attacks' Muslim victims (The profile of one Mohammad Salman Hamdani is entitled “An American Jedi”), the Times typically neglects to explicit construct national identity from individual tragedy. Instead, the most frequently recurring motif among the Portraits is a given victims' special devotion to his or her family. As Peter Singer has pointed out1, all but the most heartless ultra-humanists acknowledge that family members deserve an ethical person's special consideration. As a result, the death of a person with strong family values can be expected to appeal to the sympathies of a generalized reader. However, this sympathetic portrayal may or may not be the artificial result of strategising on the part of the Times; if family values are in fact so universally revered then it might be expected that the people interviewed for a given portrait, insofar as they idealize the memory of their loved one, would naturally provide that loved one with a set of virtues among which devotion to family would be prominent, if not paramount. The actual frequency with which this particular value appears is probably a result of both factors. One subject, a divorced father about whom the paper has nothing particularly noble to say, is nonetheless praised as never failing to spend every other weekend with his daughter, a sacrifice that hardly compares to those truly devoted subjects who are reported to have thought little of facing poverty and/or extreme fatigue in order to protect and support their families.

The Portraits make up for the relative absence of eminence that is to be expected within the cross section of firefighters, accountants, secretaries and line cooks that they address by typically discounting their subjects' achievements or lack thereof as irrelevant. Occasionally, a subject's grand intentions are reported, and his or her pointed lack of achievement is construed as poignant insofar as it indicates a tragic curtailing of human potential. More often, the paper strategically uses a tableau, a carefully described, glorified moment, to represent the tenor of individual's entire life. In the course of such a moment the portrait subject is typically performing a quotidian but laudable task, such as cooking a meal for his or her ever-crucial family, or he or she may be engaged in a hobby which, however ludicrous, has been selected for its humanity and is therefore significant. These devices enable the reader to identify with a given subject even on the rare occasion when there is no framework of shared values, though of course the presence of shared values greatly facilitates identification. The Portraits inform the reader of thousands of individual lives lost, artificially connecting that reader to the portrait subjects not via nationalism but instead via the shared values of devotion to family or at the very least through a shared human frailty. They cannot and do not report on the lives lost in their full complexity and possible lack of sympathy, but instead present the most appealing aspects of each victim, ingratiating the subjects to their readers and to the society within which their profiles are read.

1In a debate I observed.

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