It was appalling to read news reports that US Air Force officials dumped the remains of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in a landfill. I can think of nothing more distressing for a victim’s family, nor shameful for a country, than to learn that these remains were treated so carelessly. Perhaps the time has come to create a permanent “memorial to the unknowns” from the tragedy, just as we have done for the unknown dead of past conflicts.
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the US Civil War. It provides a useful historical context for this incident.
The remains handled by the Air Force mortuary in Delaware were from sites at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the attacks took place. In the aftermath of the plane crashes there, identifying remains was extremely difficult.
But consider that conditions on the Civil War battlefields in 1863 were equally difficult for those who were given the grim task of identifying the dead at Chancellorsville or Gettysburg or Chattanooga.
Ultimately, the remains of 2,111 soldiers killed at Bull Run became the Tomb of the Unknowns of the Civil War at Arlington Memorial Cemetery. Dedicated in 1866, it holds the remains of both Union and Confederate soldiers. It is a solemn reminder of the sacrifice endured by both North and South during the war, and it set a precedent for memorializing the unknown dead following both World Wars and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Creating a memorial as a repository for the unidentified remains of 9/11 victims would give families an opportunity to grieve and seek solace, while ensuring that the remains are treated with the respect they deserve.