Victims, Survivors, and Moving On From 9/11

Dwelling on our own suffering makes us blind to the pain of others

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Family members of victims console each other as they gather to pay their respect at the reflecting pool at Ground Zero during the eighth anniversary commemoration ceremony / Reuters

On Sunday, New York will pause to remember and honor the victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center 10 years ago. Not as grandly as we did on the first anniversary of the attacks, of course. But that's as it should be. The wounds were fresh then, so the drama and emotion were both much higher. More than 3,000 people died in a single morning, and the images of people voluntarily jumping to their deaths is seared in our collective memory; a graphic reminder of just how horrific the attacks and their damage were. But the damage of 9/11 went beyond those actually killed. And the challenges facing the survivors are more complex.

Some of the people participating in the anniversary events in New York (and in others commemorating those killed on Flight 93 in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon) will be literal survivors of those attacks. Others will be family members who were, by association, either emotional victims, or survivors, or both, depending on how you look at it. In truth, all Americans are peripheral survivors, in that we were all traumatized by the events of that day and had our lives impacted and changed by their fallout.

And yet, while all that is true, and the honoring and commemoration of our individual and collective loss is both legitimate and appropriate, we should still approach our identification with being victims or survivors with a healthy dose of caution.

At the end of June, I attended an unusual summit conference sponsored by Google Ideas, The Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Titled the "Summit Against Violent Extremism," it brought together some 200 people who had been involved in, or had been affected by, violent extremism of one kind or another, from Islamic jihadists to nationalist fighters, to gang members, to neo-Nazi skinheads, to Colombian jungle rebels.

The organizers separated the attendees into two groups: "survivors" and "formers" (formers being former extremists). All of the attendees were now working actively to combat violent extremism. And the stories of loss among the survivors were heart-rending. But their inclusion in the conference implied a bit of moral preaching to the "formers": we, the victims, plead with you, the perpetrators, to feel our pain. And one of the most striking moments of the conference, for me, came near the end, when one of the organizers asked a former Islamist fighter (now a soft-spoken Imam in a London mosque who works actively against violent extremism) if he'd ever had someone with a survivor's perspective speak at his mosque.

"I would like to make a couple of points," the Imam answered quietly. "First of all, I HAVE suffered. My little brother was killed, and I have lost 22 relatives in war. So," he said, gesturing to a survivor on the same panel, "I know about personal suffering in the same way as you have done."

That one, simple interchange conveyed two powerful and cautionary lessons about the hazards of victim and survivor-hood.

When tragedy or violence strikes us, we are victims of it. And if we survive it we are, by definition, survivors. I nearly died at the age of 20 when the car I was in was struck at high speed by an angry, drunk young man who'd just lost his job. The path back from that darkness, physically and emotionally, was painful and long. The good news is, humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient. You go on from tragedies. You just don't go on intact, or the same. And the self that you drag and pull forward from a tragedy feels (and sometimes is) so battered and imperfect that there can be great strength from acknowledging the injustice of what happened (I was a victim) and the difficulty of coming back from that (I am a survivor). It can help a battered soul heal.

But if those labels become part of our longer-term identities instead of just phases of healing, the focus on our own pain and suffering can blind us to the pain and suffering of others. The suffering of a mother whose innocent child was killed in the Twin Towers, while unique, is not more or less than the suffering of a mother whose innocent child was killed by a bullet or bomb, regardless of who fired it, dropped it or set it off, in Iraq, Pakistan or any other place in the world.

The interchange at the conference was also a cautionary reminder about the dark places where a sense of victimhood can lead. Many of the "formers" were also victims, and survivors, of injustice and violence of a different sort. But their righteous sense of their status as victims took them down a road where, at some point, any reaction became, therefore, justified.

Nahum Pachenik, one of the "formers" at the conference who described himself as "born into conflict" as the child of Israeli settlement pioneers near Hebron, even joked a bit about the victimhood rivalry between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"The two sides have very similar thinking," he said. "[They say] 'We are the victim.' 'No, WE are the victim.'No. We are MORE the victim.'"

Victimhood is wonderfully appealing, Pachenik said, because "in the victim position, you don't have to admit anything, because all of the responsibility is on the other."

Nevertheless, Pachenik finally came to the conclusion that if he wanted to move away from the stalemate of violence around him, he had to give up the comfort of victimhood for the tougher and more challenging path of knowledge. He now runs an organization that strives to promote better knowledge and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis... starting with learning each other's language.

"Knowledge," Pachenik said, "is the opposite of the position of the victim. Today, I believe it is more important to promote education. It's important to learn the language of the other. Because if you do that, there is, maybe, a place to meet."

The victims of 9/11 who did not survive will always be victims, and should be honored and remembered as such. But even they wouldn't want to be remembered, or identified, solely by the label of "victim." As for the rest of us... well, we are survivors. But we are -- and need to be -- far more than that if we want to stop the cycle of violence that helps cause attacks like that in the first place. It's a tempering point worth remembering, even as we pause to honor the lives and memory of those who died.