They say death is a great leveler. They're wrong. Inequality pursues us after life too. Consider Ground Zero. While international attention has shifted to Afghanistan, the vast project of body-part retrieval in Lower Manhattan is probably the most exorbitant expenditure on the dead in our lifetime, and yet remains almost entirely exempt from criticism or debate. Ground Zero has been cordoned off, not only physically, but also politically and financially, though it's a provocative message to the rest of the world, where death comes cheaper.
This is the largest attempt to identify the dead through DNA sampling. In the application of technology to grief, up to a million tissue samples will be examined by forensic pathologists, radiologists, anthropologists and dentists trying to match DNA material from victims' toothbrushes or relatives' mouths with fragments recovered from the twin towers. It's as if the scale of the operation has had to mirror the heft and girth of those buildings. Since this folly is in its early stages (projected time-scale: two years), it's impossible to say what it will cost. At some point a courageous person may call a halt, but there may be further costs, as the many professionals involved will need post-traumatic stress counseling.
The reasons for the project are to identify who died, and to allow the families of victims to bury at least a body part and achieve closure. Neither is sustainable.
No amount of DNA sampling will make the fluctuating list of the dead definitive. A register of illegal immigrants who may, or may not, have been in the WTC won't materialize. Those whose loved ones worked there and set off to work as usual know they're dead. And while burying a body is an important therapeutic rite, it's psycho-babble to suggest that it necessarily ushers in closure.
When death is sudden and a dead person's clothes still bear their smell, and the moue of their lipstick remains on a mug of coffee, it feels like they've only just left and might just as immediately return. And there's a particular pain to mourning without a body or a grave, as Holocaust survivors know. But the idea that the recovery of a small body-fragment can do more than mildly assist grieving would be considered shamanistic if expressed by an Afghan tribe. A collection of cells doesn't constitute a body, and after burial the bereaved still have disbelief, rage and anguish to face.
We've been rightly harrowed and sorrowed by the loss of life in America, but the DNA sampling has confirmed the lack of equivalence between deaths in the northern and southern hemispheres.
How does it feel to the rest of the world to see the care lavished on the parings of American bodies in death, such as no complete third world body ever receives in life? What do they think in the Indian town where 20,000 died in an earthquake earlier this year? I couldn't remember Bhuj's name, perhaps because it disappeared off our TV screens within a week.
Here's a consumer's guide to our hierarchy of death. If you want yours to signify in the media and public debate, and your relatives to be decently compensated, make sure you a) are white, and b) a westerner, c) die quickly, dramatically, and spectacularly (not slowly of a disease of poverty or occupational illness), and that d) your death is witnessed by millions, preferably on television; e) if possible, own a mobile.
Some say it's inevitable we don't mourn each death similarly: people grieve instinctively for those most like themselves. Our modern currency is empathy, extended most freely to those with whom we can identify. In the Washington Holocaust Memorial museum, visitors are issued with the personal identity card of someone like themselves in age, profession, and gender, caught up in the Holocaust. It's as if our capacity for empathy can only be kick-started narcissistically, by turning everyone into versions of ourselves. This is dangerous: those who wear the burka can't play, veiled as they are in an empathy-barrier, indelibly marked with otherness.
The lack of equivalence between northern and southern deaths is most graphic in compensation: $121m has been paid out of the American Red Cross's Liberty Fund so far, averaging a $25,000 payment to 25,000 families of those bereaved or affected by the WTC attacks.
Contrast this with the average $1,300 compensation a head for the 14,824 Indians killed by toxic gas fumes from the American-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, the site of the world's worst industrial disaster in 1984. For several hundred thousand people still disabled and diseased, the average payout has been $580. Last week it was announced that those who watched on television their relatives die in the twin towers attack would receive $20,000 compensation.
Ground Zero's DNA analysis is a meta-language. It says America may have been grievously wounded but it's still powerful and can mobilize fabulous resources to restore its citizens' dead bodies. The shaming message of Bhopal is that those unvalued in life are worth just as little in death.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001