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Jewish World Review March 21, 2002 / 8 Nisan, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Your 'victim,' is my 'survivor' is somebody else's 'hero'? | When I moved to New York 20 years ago, I started training to answer a hotline for rape victims. Except we weren't allowed to call them victims. They were survivors.

A victim, we were told, is someone passive to whom something bad happened. But a survivor is to be celebrated: She used her wits to get out alive.

Eventually, this celebration of personal strength expanded to all sorts of unfortunates. Not cancer victims, cancer survivors! Not incest victims, incest survivors! And it sounded good to me - focus on the positive.

But this movement did have one unintended side effect: It made "victim" a dirty word.

This may explain why there's been such a debate raging in the New York Daily News' Voice of the People column about what to call the civilians who died in the terror attacks:

"About 3,000 people died 9/11 - civilians, firefighters, police officers, etc. They were all heroes, weren't they?" one reader wrote a few weeks back.

"A hero ... runs into buildings to save civilians. The civilians who were killed are called victims," replied another.

"While I have the utmost respect for [the police and firefighters]," opined a third, "they are paid to do a job, and on 9/11 they did theirs. There were also many civilians who were doing their jobs and never made it home. What makes them any less heroic?"

Well, what makes them less heroic is, rather clearly, the fact that they didn't deliberately risk their lives to save others. At least, most of them didn't.

But simply calling them victims does indeed carry a hint of insult, especially since the word has become shorthand for "loser": "I can't stand her - she's such a victim." "He knew it was an awful job, but he just loves playing the victim." Today's victims bring about their own misery.

That's hardly what happened on 9/11.

"'Victim' does not carry the gravitas many people would like to see [the 9/11 dead] have," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "There's a passivity to it - like that Hawaiian Punch guy, standing there and letting himself get pummeled."

In its pathos, "victim" is in direct contrast to "hero" - an active, noble person. The desire to call everyone who died that day a hero is the desire to honor the dead.

But one-size-fits-all also heroism avoids the problem so taboo that no one's talking about it: the pecking order of death. The idea that heroes' deaths are really tragic, victims' deaths a little less so.

That notion is horribly wrong, of course. There is no rank to tragedy. But until we stop bickering about who was or wasn't a hero, what we're really arguing about is whose death is more significant.

So maybe instead of victim or hero, we should go back to the very first term we used that day: The Missing.

After all, whether firefighter or paper pusher, properly buried or never to be found, all of 9/11's dead will be missing in our hearts forever.

JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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02/27/02: Sometimes, lying's the best policy
02/20/02: The Fad That Won't Fade Away
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02/05/02: Exterminators are evolving, too
02/01/02: Don't suffer do drugs
01/22/02: The Blue Light of Happiness
01/18/02: Marlboro's surprising gift to U.S.
01/08/02: Hospitals make me sick
01/02/02: Read-Aloud Resolutions
12/21/01: Nothing's Worse/Than Bad Verse
12/18/01: This Little Dog Bytes
12/13/01: Palm Pilot or Calendar? Paper Wins
12/07/01: The gift of 9/11
12/03/01: Altria Is Really Smokin'

© 2002, New York Daily News