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"After I had the data, it only took me a week or so to extract the available information from it, which I passed back to New York," he adds. "And they gave me some more sample data."
Looking past Dr. Brenner's excitement at the intellectual challenge presented by the World Trade Center DNA project, it's possible to question the wisdom of spending thousands of man-hours on a forensic effort doomed to achieve only modest investigative success. Last month New York officials asked family members to scour their homes for more DNA-marked remnants of loved ones -- dirty clothes, hairbrushes, anything. But even this second call for genetic material is unlikely to produce a thorough catalog of the World Trade Center dead. Too many people were made cinders by the heat of the jet fuel explosions involved; the cataloging of remains has lacked the kind of precision that might have been possible were this a smaller crime scene; in many cases, producing sufficient genetic material from victims' families won't be practical. Out of fewer than 900 fragments with DNA profiles that provide the potential to be matched with those of family members, the New York Medical Examiner's Office has so far only produced a couple of hundred actual matches as a result of DNA, Brenner says.
If a WTC banker happened to be outside sipping coffee Sept. 11, saw the explosion, then decided to abandon his family and start a new life in Malibu, the massive forensic effort under way in New York would have absolutely no chance of foiling the scheme. From a police-work point of view, the identification process is nearly pointless.
But a volunteer team of 1,000 scientists, forensic experts, and funeral specialists continues to perform this unimaginable task. Workers from mortuary teams wade through the rubble, filling buckets with any trace of survivors. DNA specialists analyze the buckets' contents and convert the results into endless rows of numbers, which are crunched through successive versions of Brenner's software, which he continues revising as new data comes in. Given the meager results, Brenner says, "digging through this is a little disappointing in a way."
But the dig continues, and for good reason.
Though America's public discussion of moral issues surrounding recent advances in genetic technology has focused on stem-cell research and cloning, the discussion's most fascinating ethical terrain, in my view, involves the interplay between DNA and human rights. It just so happens that the era of greatest advancement in genetic typing technology has coincided with an epoch of global atrocities.
Groups such as Physicians for Human Rights have fought for the right to use DNA technology so the families of victims in Africa, Central and South America, and Bosnia can know what really happened to their loved ones. Now, more than a decade after DNA was first used to prove the identities of the Argentine desaparecidoorphans, the international community places a high value on the curative power of truth.
Argentine scientists, who gained expertise working on efforts to learn the truth about people who disappeared under that country's military dictatorship, have gone on to Zimbabwe to help communities learn the truth about massacre victims there. Bosnian experts have aided in gathering information about the World Trade Center tragedy. They've seen families stand waiting at the edge of mass grave sites as forensic experts sift the remains, and the experts now understand the strength of the desire for knowledge.
"When there's been an atrocity, people search for information to guide their future. They search for information on how the event occurred, and why it occurred," says UC Berkeley visiting scholar Laurie Vollen, who directed the efforts by Physicians for Human Rights to identify human remains in Bosnia. "Atrocity takes you out of your concept of the world, so you try to break it into pieces you can understand. These questions are the quest for truth, and they are insatiable."
It's for this reason that DNA identification efforts such as Brenner's may just be worthwhile. It's also for this reason that I've so far devoted four columns, and am now devoting part of another, to the San Francisco Police Department's practice of choosing secrecy over transparency when it comes to public access to official records on deaths in which police officers have been involved. In the case of the World Trade Center, workers and scientists are moving heaven and earth to give families some certainty about the nature of their loved ones' deaths. In San Francisco the official posture regarding police-involved death is exactly the opposite.
In the case of Gregory Caldwell, the Mervyn's shoplifter who asphyxiated in police custody in December, and Idriss Stelley, the computer student police shot to death in the Metreon movie theater last summer, police withheld official information for months, refusing to release police reports and medical examiner's reports until the story of the deaths was, in journalistic terms, dead. Our Police Department uses a little-noticed clause in state public records law, which says that official documents may be withheld in cases where their release might obstruct an investigation, as a blanket cover for concealing documents pertaining to police-involved deaths.