Of the 2,753 victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, no physical trace has been found for 1,112 of them. Thus, for 40 percent of those who died that day, no remains have been returned to their families. In the aftermath of the carnage, some people exhibited photos, family snapshots, of those who had vanished and remained unaccounted for, despite the efforts of the authorities.
What could be more natural than to seek information that would, at least, offer clarity and closure, surcease to the mind and heart? As long as there was no body to mourn, there was always a desperate shred of belief that perhaps the loved one might somehow have survived. Any bereavement is hard enough, but when someone has disappeared, seemingly annihilated from the face of the earth, it becomes unbearable.
When I was growing up, I had always heard the Spanish verb “desaparecer” used intransitively: “Se desapareció mi libro,” my book disappeared somewhere, my mother or my father would say, as if it had somehow mislaid itself. Years later, after the Chilean military coup of Sept. 11, 1973, we learned a sinister new usage. Around 1974, like others who had gone into exile to escape the dictatorship, my wife and I began to hear a transitive version of the verb coming from our country: “lo desaparecieron” or “la desaparecieron,” they disappeared him or her.
“Desaparecer” became a verb that, far from being passive, described a ferocious act of violence and dissimulation. Agents of the state were kidnapping opponents of the regime and then denying their relatives any knowledge of their whereabouts. The verb’s new meaning was a response to a particularly cruel form of terror: Those in power were eliminating anyone they considered a threat while whitewashing their responsibility for the persecutions. The abductors wanted to spread fear — Will I be next? Will my son, my parents, my spouse? — and simultaneously claim there was no human rights abuse.
But this monstrous criminality incited its own form of resistance. The families, primarily the mothers, of the “desaparecidos,” the disappeared, were not going to let their dear ones fade into the darkness. In the years that followed, the world witnessed how those relatives stood up to the authorities, demanding that the detained be returned alive or, if they had been murdered, that their bodies be released for a proper burial and commemoration. Emblematic of this resistance were the photos pinned to the dresses of women or held aloft on placards at rallies or silent marches that were often savagely repressed.
Though such acts of defiance had their start in Chile and Argentina in the mid-1970s, they soon became globalized, as globalized as the terror they were protesting. Over the decades, families in Afghanistan and Myanmar, Ethiopia and Cyprus, to the more recent cases of Syria, Yemen and Mexico, adopted the same tactics, a determined attempt to memorialize the missing.
In time, it was not just the victims of political brutality who were, in some sense, kept fiercely alive in this way. In the 1980s, after our family had moved to the United States, we were surprised to see the images of youngsters on milk cartons, placed at the behest of parents whose children had disappeared. The context was very different — unlike in Chile, in America the police were allies in the search for the missing — but the impulse to call attention to the lost loved one was something we recognized with a shudder. We could identify with the pain felt by those families, the uncertainty and bewilderment corroding their existence.
Despite the disparity in circumstances, the photos staring at consumers from peaceful milk cartons in the United States and the photos paraded by relatives of the desaparecidos who were beaten and jailed and persecuted for demanding justice, shared a very human trait. They wanted to make visible the face and fate of someone who could not speak for himself or herself, and to enlist the wider citizenry in a quest for the truth.
It is that communion across borders, a bond of grief between some of the most and least fortunate people in the world, that makes the idea of bearing witness to the disappeared powerful and universal, and especially relevant right now. At this crossroads in history, the disappearance that was inflicted on a sliver of the earth’s population could now be perpetrated against all humanity, dragging into the void every other species as well. The very extinction of our world, whether by thermonuclear war or from unstoppable man-made climate change, is ominously possible.
The vanishing we face would apply not just to the billions breathing at this moment, but to those generations that lived before us and the legions of the unborn yet to come. All of them, all of us, “desaparecidos.”
In these circumstances, we should look to the families of the disappeared for guidance and courage. Despite the price they paid for struggling against indifference and fear, they refused to let death have the last word. Perhaps we, too, should pin to our clothes the photos of those most precious to us.
If we do not make visible all who would be perpetually disappeared, if we do not find the means to force the powerful to listen and reverse course, humanity will be engulfed in an apocalypse on an infinitely greater scale than the Sept. 11 attacks. Everything and everyone we love would be reduced to dust in a planet emptied of life and laughter, forever.
But we can still refuse to be disappeared. It starts by depriving disappearance of our complicity or resignation.
This column originally appeared in the New York Times.