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The dark art of deception

The 9/11 death toll has gone down again. Even a playwright couldn't imagine such a tale

Neil LaBute
Thursday October 30, 2003
The Guardian

In Woody Allen's film Hannah and Her Sisters, a cantankerous artist played by Max von Sydow grouses about the causes of the Holocaust: "I'm not surprised that it happened. I'm surprised that it doesn't happen more often." Now, I'm paraphrasing Mr Allen, but I think I'm pretty close on the words and dead-on about the sentiment. That notion has always stuck with me, the anti-Rousseauvian logic that people have as much capacity for doing bad as they do good. In fact, I've been making a fair living over the past few years writing about just that, and while my work has been embraced and reviled, no one has ever accused me of writing science fiction.

This morning, I awoke to the news blaring from the television, having fallen asleep with the set on. The hosts were being silly trying on fashionable tracksuits, but what caught my attention was a terse statement about the World Trade Centre along the bottom of the screen. Forty names, it noted, would be removed from official death tallies because these people could not be properly identified. In some instances, their very existence was in question. Several of these cases involved fraud.

I had already written a play, The Mercy Seat, that follows this loose scenario: a man uses that fateful day to gain a certain amount of personal freedom for himself and his mistress. But I didn't feel vindicated by this startling piece of information. My reaction wasn't so much "I told you so" as "I knew this would happen". It seems there is little joy in being right about the human soul's unbounded capacity for darkness. One ultimately feels a bit more like Cassandra than Walter Winchell. Yes, I got the scoop, but the bad news is, nobody gets out alive.

According to the Associated Press, as of September, police in New York have made "40 arrests related to people falsely claiming they lost loved ones, and law enforcement agencies in other cities have nabbed others". Indeed, New York - looking into the crystal ball - created an agency called Reported Missing Committee. This office was charged with "weeding out fraud and crossing off errors". In those panicked and horrible days after the attacks on the WTC, the tally of dead and missing reached as many as 6,700. Obviously, that number was reduced quickly as a clearer picture of the devastation emerged, but it was from this kind of terror and confusion that my play and the reality of people using this event for personal gain was born.

People in the US have always seen New York City as a kind of refuge, a place that promises a chance to reinvent your life, to hide (or come out of hiding), a stage on which to be discovered. The heartwarming sight of the Statue of Liberty is right there in the harbour, promising solace to "the poor, the tired" and all the rest. It seemed ironic to me as a writer and citizen (note that I put citizen second) to utilise this setting for a dramatic character who would use this moment in history for personal gain. As a dramatist, I knew it was rich territory; as a person, I was sadly certain that my hunch about human nature would turn out to be right.

We're an interesting bunch, we Americans: so driven to get ahead, to be first, to win, that it gets into the blood. We push and push and keep on pushing, even when the victory is certain or the outcome inevitable. I don't think the US has cornered the market in self-centredness, but we are a leading exporter of it. This isn't politics, just an observation. The fact that someone tries to make a buck out of somebody else's death is a time-honoured practice around the world - we've just honed it into an art. Even me writing this article has a sense of self-aggrandisement to it.

I remember being in New York a few days after 9/11 and being suspicious of all the street vendors - big smiles on their faces - as they quickly moved from selling knock-off purses and watches to hawking tiny plastic flags. On the street it's all the same: give 'em what they want. I didn't begrudge them trying to make a buck, but then again, the Romans thought Judas was a helluva guy. You be the judge.

As of this autumn, about 60% of the victims at the WTC have been identified and I think that's a very apt percentage. Like the artist in Allen's film, I imagine that is roughly the percentage of our collective heart that is pure and good and hopeful. Which leaves an awful lot of wiggle room.


· The Mercy Seat opens at the Almeida, London N1, tonight. Box office: 020-7359 4404.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1073834,00.html