“O Lord, give each person his own personal death.
A thing that moves out of the same life he lived,
In which he had love, and intelligence, and trouble.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke
This essay is meant as a commemoration on the anniversary of the tragedy which the world knows simply as “9/11.” And the word “commemorate” comes from the Latin commemorationem, or “reminding.” Perhaps it is strange of me to suggest that there is a need for reminding, in connection with an event that has become so thoroughly ingrained in our collective consciousness and our collective unconsciousness. But not so strange if you came upon the news story of a San Antonio mattress store which, in a 9/11 themed television ad, showed two employees falling backwards into twin towers of mattresses. No tragedy, no matter how grave and no matter how sacred, is safe against becoming kitsch. And this is only one step away from forgetting.
Above, I’ve shared Rilke’s prayer for death. Rilke was a profoundly religious man, and saw death as a passage through which we reach our final audience with God. Why did he mourn the loss of death? Writing with the industrial revolution in mind, Rilke anticipated a mass-produced extinction taking the place of death.
The social critic Theodor Adorno took up this theme. He wrote, “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people. Rilke's prayer … is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out.” Adorno wrote of this in connection with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the harnessing of industrial efficiency to the aim of ending lives.
The spiritually-inclined among us, those who see value in all human life, regret that the events of 9/11 ushered in the so-called Global War on Terror, which, conducted by the United States, has been snuffing out lives for 15 years straight. In many countries around the globe, this snuffing out occurs without the recipients receiving a fair trial or a right to appeal. Government officials have admitted that some of these ended lives belonged to “civilians” or “bystanders.” They won’t give the American people honest numbers on how many of the dead fall into this category.
Those of us who are not so spiritually-minded have little sympathy to spare for the victims of the Global War on Terror. News sources remind us every day that American drones stalk their prey in areas that are overrun by brutally violent psychopathic terrorists.
It might be too difficult for us to push past the pain and rage that come to mind when we recall the Americans who were killed on 9/11. It might be too difficult to separate the lurid image of the terrorist from the images of blameless children and wedding guests whose time on earth is ended by American armaments. We may simply be unable to experience the weight of responsibility that comes with the robotized destruction of lives that has occurred over these last 15 years.
We may be forced to concede that these sentiments require more of us than we are able to give. Even so, it is still our responsibility to the victims of 9/11 to accept that we are witnesses to an era that has, through the miracle of technology, advanced beyond death. And as a direct result, we have lost the right to claim that every human life is irreplaceable and invaluable.