9/11 Families Go To Court

Last week, relatives of September 11 victims who oppose a plan to put roughly 9,000 unidentified pieces of remains underground in the National September 11th Memorial & Museum went to court to press for access to a City-maintained list of the kin for all the 2,752 world trade center victims.

While the hearing dealt mostly with public-records law, an emotionally charged debate about the future of the 9,000 pieces of unidentified remains supplanted the public-records issue. Victims’ relatives were in the courtroom audience watching as their attorneys argued that the City-maintained list is needed so that the victims’ families can be polled about where they feel the remains should be buried. The families maintain that they were never consulted about the City’s plans to place the remains underground and would like the remains placed someplace separate from the museum.

New York City attorneys argued that releasing this list would invade the privacy of the victims’ relatives. The City stated that the identities of the victims only became the City’s business through tragedy. The City and the Memorial Foundation – which has some victims’ relatives on its board – argued that they have made a vast effort to include families in the planning, and that various family members have approved of this plan, as it has been known for many years.

The underlying issue here is who decides where the remains go? What obligates the government to consult the victims’ families? Should the government decide or should the victims’ families decide?

The lawsuit suggests releasing the list of kin to a retired judge rather than to the public. According to the lawsuit, the judge would then send a letter on the plaintiffs’ behalf polling victims’ families on the issue, and thus, circumventing the City’s privacy concerns. However, the City argues, according to public-records law, if the list is released it would have to be released publicly. A public release of the list would undoubtedly cause a flood of unwanted solicitations and communications to victims’ families.

The same issue of where to place unidentified remains is resolved at the other sites where the hijacked planes crashed on September 11, 2001. On September 12, 2011, a private burial of three caskets of remains of United Airlines Flight 93 was held at the crash site – an open field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  On the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, remains from victims killed in the Pentagon and on American Airlines Flight 77 were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The right of privacy is a sacred part of our American heritage and the essence of the 4th Amendment. A repercussion of releasing the list of kin is that the public will have access to the home addresses of all 9/11 victims’ families. This is too big of a risk. While there is no easy way to decide this sensitive topic, I feel the “safest” outcome is to have the remains buried, as planned, under the September 11th Memorial & Museum. This way, we can respect the privacy of the victims’ families and, as Americans, create a united place to remember and grieve together.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kern did not immediately rule on this issue nor say when she would. Instead, Justice Kern asked whether both sides can work something out.