Two-and-a-half months on from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, the New York authorities are nearer than they were to an accurate death toll: 3,899 was the official figure released this week, although some believe that even this is an overestimate. But the number of victims whose remains have been identified is still only 624, and the peculiarly agonising problems facing the bereaved – of how to achieve some kind of closure – are nowhere near resolved. With no bodies to bury, many thousands remain in a state of trauma scarcely less vivid today than on 11 September.
This is a simple suggestion, tentatively advanced, of an idea that could be of value to some of the people who lost loved ones in the US attacks. It proved to have some worth for some of the relations of the more than 3,600 dead of the Northern Ireland troubles; perhaps it might help those connected with the victims of the airline bombings. Nothing can take away the pain of bereavement, but some things can offer a little consolation.
In the Nineties, five of us – Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, David McVea and myself – produced a book listing all those killed in the troubles and giving a brief account of the life and death of each. Entitled Lost Lives, it was published two years ago.
It was a huge task that took eight years and resulted in more than 1,600 pages. It weighs 4lb; its cover is mainly black; it has something of the feel of a family Bible.
The task of producing it was highly complex, and necessitated the drawing up of rules and conventions. We tried, for example, to avoid contentious or disputed words, seeking always usages that would give offence to no one. We produced a style guide which, with its regulations and examples, grew into a 12,000-word document.
Had we known how long this task would take, and how much work was involved, we probably would not have embarked on it. For many years, we were unsure whether it could or would be published, for its sheer size meant that publication in the normal way was not a commercial proposition. But we are glad that we persisted.
Although most of us involved in the book were seasoned Belfast journalists who have covered the troubles for many years, we shed tears while researching and writing it. It began as a journalistic exercise but was greeted as much more than that.
We did not set out to create a monument, but it became evident to us that many of the thousands who bought the book looked on it in that way. We had regarded it primarily as an addition to the journalistic and historical record, but many thought of it as a reminder of a lost loved one.
The victims are described one by one. We set out the tales of those who died in a manner that was as unemotional and objective as we could devise. Yet the facts, even when presented as dispassionately as possible, have tremendous intrinsic power.
The reaction was extraordinary, and for us a moving and humbling experience. It caught the imagination of a great many people both in Northern Ireland and further afield.
Nowhere was the intensity of the reaction clearer than in bookshops in Northern Ireland where people were to be seen clustered around displays of the book, poring over its pages in search of loved ones, friends, and acquaintances.
In one shop, a book lay stained with mascara where a woman had wept on its pages. Stories reached us of families communally reading it around the kitchen table and reflecting and praying together.
In Protestant and Catholic churches the book was used as the basis for sermons. In a monastery in the heart of the Falls Road, one of the most scarred areas of Belfast, the book was placed on a lectern in front of an altar for all to read.
No one finds Lost Lives easy reading. Some people were upset by errors of detail as small as a slight discrepancy in the age of a victim. Reactions such as this again brought home to us the depth of grief that exists in the community.
Yet if reading it has been a difficult or painful experience for many people, we have heard of a great many who have found much solace in its pages. And in the past two-and-a-half months, the thought keeps returning to us that Lost Lives could serve as a model for a book that would set out and commemorate the victims of 11 September. If people felt a need for it, it could be done. There would be no shortage of potential sources of funding or of volunteers from the local media.
Described in this bald way, the proposal seems almost like a dream. Yet we cannot suppress the urge to offer it as a possible consolation to the many thousands whose lives were torn apart that day.
A few months after the publication of Lost Lives, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were among those who read extracts in a Christmas broadcast, prompting Blair to say: "Reading Lost Lives, the same feelings come back again and again – pity, anger, despair, but perhaps most of all the powerful conviction that there has to be a better future than this."
As a group of people from Belfast, a city that for over three decades has had all too much experience of terrorism and bereavement, we would like to see our sad past bring a little good to the world.
'Lost Lives', edited by David McKittrick, is published by Mainstream, £30Reuse content