Op-Ed: How We Die Matters

Above, American Airlines Boeing 757 N644AA that was hijacked on 9/11 and crashed into the Pentagon takes off from Logan Airport Boston Massachusetts USA, July 20, 2001 (QualityHD /

My cousin fought his killers as his plane headed for the World Trade Center

By Danny Eisen

Osama bin Laden was not the first. His vision for the New York skyline had been articulated almost 60 years earlier by none other than Adolf Hitler. The Fuehrer had developed schematics for specialized aircraft that would be piloted into the edifices of Manhattan, and spoke obsessively of turning those skyscrapers “into huge burning torches … falling hither and thither and the reflection of a disintegrating city in the dark sky.” The plan was only curtailed by the fall of Reich.

Bin Laden, then, was neither the first to conceive of such an atrocity — nor the first to murder large numbers of civilians. His “novelty” lies — among other things — in the creation of a brand. A brand that demonstrated that non-state actors could inflict damage on par with nation-states — and that emphasized the spectacular nature of the violence employed, as no less important than the lethality it generates. Bin Laden, Zarqawi and their colleagues had discovered that a single beheading on video can be more impactful than far more extensive carnage that occurs “offstage.”

This new terror brand and its reliance on the “theatrics” of slaughter created a novel type of victims’ experience on the morning of 9/11. For an excruciating 102 minutes, thousands of families from over 90 countries would watch the murder of their loved ones — in real time. For most, there would be no remains and no burial. For others, like Canadian Maureen Basnicki, there would be multiple burials — as body fragments of her husband Ken would arrive in small packages by mail in the years that followed.

The prolonged suffering of those within the towers and the overwhelming imagery of violence witnessed by their family members outside, created a toxicity of imagination. Some family members here in Canada whose relatives were on the “jumper floors” would be left to forever wonder — was their relative one of the hundreds who chose to jump? Other families like mine would never have to entertain that particular doubt.

We knew that my cousin and friend, 31-year-old Danny Lewin, was on Flight 11 — the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. The doubt we would be left with was quite different. Danny had been a Special Forces officer of almost legendary ability who would have fought given any opportunity to do so. Like virtually everyone else who knew Danny, I wondered if more had happened in the last minutes of that flight. The question would be answered later by American authorities. They informed our family that Danny had been stabbed and critically wounded while physically confronting Mohamed Atta and his colleagues. Seated in their midst in business class, Danny fought, alone and unarmed, to prevent the hijacking.

While Danny did not succeed in preventing the tragedy on Flight 11, his impact on 9/11 would be profound. As the co-founder of Akamai Technologies, Danny had invented technology to help the Internet handle huge amounts of traffic. As usage of the Internet surged to unprecedented levels on 9/11, Danny’s technology would prove itself under fire — just as Danny himself had on so many occasions. It prevented the collapse of many sites that would have been unable to handle the volume.

Now, 12 years later, as I watch the footage, endlessly rerun, of Danny and the others crashing into the towers and dying again and again — I recall my initial incredulity in 2001. Danny had been so much bigger than life — and 9/11 was so much more than just death. The world seemed displaced — the new co-ordinates unfamiliar. So I stayed glued to the television — trying to find my focus in the smoke that kept pouring through the screen into the life of my family. I then left for Boston to be with Danny’s wife and children.

The co-ordinates now are clearer — and I am particularly struck by the impact of Danny’s last battle on the direction of my life. The news of his final struggle did not alleviate the grief — but it significantly reframed it. Because how we die matters. Whether sudden or prolonged, accidental or intentional, by an “act of God” or an act of man, dying frames the death it precedes. It moulds the contours of any given loss and it effects how others will choose to live in its wake.

Yes. How we die does matter a great deal to how we live — and is a point of departure for understanding the tactical intent of the 9/11 perpetrators and the victimology of the families they destroyed. But it must also inform our strategic decisions on the morning of Sept. 12 and thereafter, if we are to cope with the long battle ahead against the new brand of terror.

Danny Eisen is the co-founder of C-CAT, the Canadian Coalition Against Terror

First appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on September 10, 2011:

Ottawa Citizen: 2011-09-10 – How we die matters – PressReader › canada › ottawa-citizen