This is my 9/11 column. If you are like some of my friends and family – and are sick to death of hearing, reading, watching and thinking about 9/11 – then this column is likely to add to the pile. But as I told one of my friends who was fed up with the pretty heavy 9/11 retrospective going on across the media for the last two weeks, there is a difference between crass commercialization of 9/11 and legitimate remembrance of an event that has changed us as a people so deeply.
Earlier this year, when I went to Ground Zero to photograph Obama’s visit there, I met a lot of New Yorkers for whom 9/11 was still a very open wound, emotionally. I talked with one guy, a plumber named Jerry Conway, who survived the collapse of the Towers and was very open about his experience. When I asked him what he saw that day, he said, with a harrowed look in his eyes, “No things a civilized person should ever see.” For people in Lower Manhattan, at least, hearing that bin Laden was dead revealed just how recent 9/11 still felt for so many of them. Given how interconnected our society is today, I suspect there are more people across this country than we realize for whom this upcoming September 11 will have special gravity. It does for me. And it does for the life and health industry.
I think one of the things that numbs so many people about 9/11 is how it often is boiled down to numbers: how many died, where and when. And while that data is meant to give us a sense of scope of the tragedy, in a way, it doesn’t. There are a few victims, such as FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, who stand out as individual victims, but for the most part, the victims of 9/11 have become this strange community of the fallen who we collectively know as anonymous people. In so doing, we overlook the individual tragedy of each and every one of those lives lost. Every death delivers some form of tragedy, but when it is in a large number like this, so sudden and so severe, the numbers magnify themselves out of any normal sense of proportion and together, they become something different. Something we can hardly even understand.
It is something the life and health industry understands, however. While I don’t like to think of 9/11 in terms of numbers, one that sticks in my head is $2.7 billion – the amount the life industry paid to the families of those who died in the attacks. That money accounts for nearly 7% of the total financial losses of 9/11, and it is something that the industry can’t exactly trumpet, yet it deserves credit as being one of the many institutions that stepped in when our society really needed it. The industry performed a service that while being part of its daily operations, was conducted with such swiftness and on such a scale that it delivered more than an individual good merely many times over. It delivered a good to us all.
That said, I suspect that for every one of the agents who delivered those death benefits, there was not a bigger picture first and foremost being served. It was about that check, the person who died, and the people who needed that money. And that is what I find most interesting about this national tragedy; that for an industry so often portrayed as being mammoth, monolithic and even uncaring, life insurers handled themselves with uncommon humanity at a time when we all reeling from uncommon inhumanity.
How sad it is, then, that urban legends persist that no insurance payments were given because of 9/11 – a notion easily dismissed by anybody who cares to actually look into it. No, it is far easier for critics of the industry to merely assume the worst and imagine the hows and whys of such callousness. For me, this presumption that the life insurance industry has been part of the wounds caused by 9/11 is just one more piece of tripe to go along with the variously odious conspiracy theories that suggest 9/11 was something other that what it really was: a terrible act of terrorism carried out upon a nation that did not take the threat seriously enough.