Who Owns the Dead?: the Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero by Jay D. Aronson
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016
Basement RA1055 .A76 2016
This book is not for the faint of heart. It tells the story of the recovery, identification, and memorialization of the 2,749 people killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The twin towers were attacked at just the moment in history when large-scale DNA identification efforts were becoming possible. Innovations made in the context of the biotechnology boom of the 1990s, combined with innovations in forensic science that emerged out of investigations of previous disasters and episodes of mass violence (e.g., in Argentina, Guatemala, and Bosnia), led NYC Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch to promise that he and his staff would endeavor to identify and return to families every human body part recovered from the site that was bigger than a thumbnail (rather than just confirming the identity of all those individuals believed to have died). This would prove to be a monumentally difficult task given the condition in which remains were recovered. Only 293 bodies were found whole. The rest were painstakingly recovered in 21,800 bits and pieces scattered throughout the debris of the fallen towers. Well over $80 million has been spent on the effort to date, with a commitment to continue the identification process in perpetuity as technologies improve, making it the largest and most costly forensic investigation in history. This massive effort was undertaken in part to provide conclusive knowledge about death for victims’ families, but also for a range of social, cultural, and political reasons that created a decade of contention and debate both within the community of families and between families and officials responsible for finding, identifying, and memorializing the dead. These debates comprise the second half of the book.
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