Years ago, I learned of an apt way to better comprehend what the Nazis did in the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on the millions of people killed, it can be more telling to understand that the Nazis killed one person, then they killed another, then they killed another ….

Paul Wong
Jon Schwartz, Two sides to every Schwartz

Kind of puts it in better perspective, no?

Unfortunately, that mentality is not called into play nearly enough. Too often, we are concerned more with the number of dead than with the victims themselves. We throw around numbers as a superficial means of identifying the scope of horror. It goes without saying, in the case of our societal standards, that it’s much more of a tragedy when 100 people die than the loss of 10. And in my mind, nowhere is this more true than in the case of Sept. 11.

A year ago tomorrow, 3,038 people were killed in the worst act of terrorism to ever hit this country. It was a sickening, despicable act that should be forever memorialized; when President Bush said that “our nation saw evil” he was absolutely right.

But didn’t our nation also see evil on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla.? The fact that most people don’t know the significance of that date just proves my point (I had to look it up). That day, 168 people died – not as many as on Sept. 11, but no less a tragedy.

When we remember the victims of last year’s attack or the Oklahoma City bombing, we should be looking at more than the number 3,038 or 168. We should be realizing that each of those 3,206 names has a face, and with a face comes a family left to grieve.

So what is it? What makes us so fascinated by numbers? Why do we need to convince ourselves that this most recent attack is inherently worse than any that came before it, simply because the numbers are higher? Furthermore, why is it that in McVeigh’s final days, the country’s eye was acutely focused on the families of the dead, but this time, America sees itself as one great victim?

Most people right now would say that it’s because Sept. 11 was a case of international terrorism as opposed to an angry, militant American taking personal action. Sitting here in Ann Arbor, it’s easy to say that while Osama bin Laden attacked us, Timothy McVeigh hit them. McVeigh may have hit Americans, citizens of a country 288 million strong, but bin Laden hit America.

This baffles me. Though I understand the intrinsic difference between the two dates in American history, I can’t fathom how we can expect that the pain of losing someone on Sept. 11 must have been greater than it was to have lost someone in 1995. I imagine that most would agree that it’s easy to understand why someone who lost a husband in the Murrah Building would feel that while bin Laden attacked them, McVeigh hit her.

I don’t know any victims of either attack. But I can guarantee you that relatives, friends and associates of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing consider April 19 an awful, if not worse of a day than Sept. 11.

Which is to take nothing away from the horror that hit America a year ago; I just don’t understand why it has to be more of a tragedy than anything else.

For many who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, tomorrow might not be a day spent memorializing terrorism. Rather, I expect that they will use the time to remember the person they lost. I imagine that they will see the day much like a family member commemorates the anniversary of a murder.

The United States was no doubt affected by Sept. 11, but Americans need to realize that the change witnessed by society is wholly different than the way a family without a father has coped. Some victims might still see the attack in general as a watershed event, but others probably do not.

Blasphemous though it may seem right now, a tragedy is a tragedy. There’s no need to compare the atrocities of Sept. 11 with any other date, because to those affected, they’re all equally terrible. Though it’s commonplace and easy to shout about the United States’ unhealable wounds suffered last year, the pain I feel as an American, even a patriotic American, can’t compare to anyone who lost a loved one in the attack.

For me, Sept. 11 will always be a day when our nation was attacked in one of the most vicious ways imaginable. It was a day that changed my life and one which I will never forget. As I’ve said, I don’t want to take attention away from what happened, I just want to shift the focus from the number to the names.

Because I won’t remember what happened simply for the reason that 3,038 innocent people died. I’ll remember it because Osama bin Laden killed one person, and then he killed another, and then he killed another ….

Jon Schwartz can be reached at jlsz@umich.edu.

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