“Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero”

Event date: 
March 8, 2017 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Jay D. Aronson
Carnegie Mellon University
Co-Sponsored by: 
Center for Collaborative History, the University Center for Human Values, and the Program in American Studies

“Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero”

A Lecture and Booksigning
Jay D. Aronson, Carnegie Mellon University

Following this lecture there will be a book signing. Books will be available for sale, on site, from Labyrinth Books Princeton.

About "Who Owns the Dead?"

After September 11, with New Yorkers reeling from the World Trade Center attack, Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch proclaimed that his staff would do more than confirm the identity of the individuals who were killed. They would attempt to identify and return to families every human body part recovered from the site that was larger than a thumbnail. As Jay D. Aronson shows, delivering on that promise proved to be a monumentally difficult task. Only 293 bodies were found intact. The rest would be painstakingly collected in 21,900 bits and pieces scattered throughout the skyscrapers’ debris.

This massive effort—the most costly forensic investigation in U.S. history—was intended to provide families conclusive knowledge about the deaths of loved ones. But it was also undertaken to demonstrate that Americans were dramatically different from the terrorists who so callously disregarded the value of human life.

Bringing a new perspective to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, Who Owns the Dead? tells the story of the recovery, identification, and memorialization of the 2,753 people killed in Manhattan on 9/11. For a host of cultural and political reasons that Aronson unpacks, this process has generated endless debate, from contestation of the commercial redevelopment of the site to lingering controversies over the storage of unclaimed remains at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The memory of the victims has also been used to justify military activities in the Middle East that have led to the deaths of an untold number of innocent civilians.

Jay D. Aronson is the founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also an Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the History Department. His research and teaching focus is on the interactions of science, technology, law, and human rights in a variety of contexts. He recently completed a long-term study of the ethical, political, and social dimensions of post-conflict and post-disaster identification of the missing and disappeared, and been involved in various projects to improve the quality of civilian casualty recording and estimation in times of conflict. This work was funded by generous grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Jay is currently being supported by Humanity United, MacArthur Foundation, and Oak Foundation to facilitate collaborations between technologists and human rights practitioners. The goal of these partnerships is to develop better tools and approaches for acquiring, authenticating, analyzing, and archiving human rights-related video and images. His work in this domain also explores the extent to which the democratization of human rights documentation (through the global spread of social media and mobile phones with cameras) is leading to an increase in accountability and the prevention of atrocities. Jay’s previous research focused on the development and use of forensic DNA identification in the American criminal justice system. His first book, entitled Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling (Rutgers University Press, 2007), examined the development of forensic DNA analysis in the American legal system. His current book entitled Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero (Harvard University Press, 2016) examines the recovery, identification and memorialization of the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Jay received his Ph.D. in History of Science and Technology from the University of Minnesota and was both a pre- and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Jennifer Loessy
Area of Interest: 
Legal History
Political History
Public History
Social History
United States
20th Century
21st Century