From Surreal to Real
Hearing that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center wasn’t the most arresting thing I heard eleven years ago. At work, the rampant speculating, the absurd discontinuity of airplanes and buildings in far away places made the tragedy distant somehow. News spread in the waning minutes before our Barnes & Noble bookstore was to open for business. Even more disorienting was how many people were wandering around our store in Lansing, Michigan over the next few hours, not untethered from reality as we now portray that time in our collective history. No, it was a normal day. A day in which another tragedy somewhere has happened. Oh, hey, let’s see if they have a Jonathan Franzen novel.
The morning was surreal and distant. This wasn’t as arresting as what came later. It was hearing that people were jumping.
Like many others, the images and video of people falling to their deaths caused the acid in my stomach to move up. I was shocked by the situation and surprised that the journalists were so strong as to capture this moment and share it with us. I don’t remember if I joined the chorus that said that coverage was in poor taste. I very well might have. I do remember feeling compelled to look away from the screen.
Despite their absence in the coverage since, and the willingness of the people to avoid them, those images have hunted me from that day. I haven’t gone looking for them, they find me. I have not forgotten how I watched video of people falling. And that is my 9/11/01 image. Not the abstractions of the day: heroism, terrorism, smoke, rubble, fear, devotion, revenge: but the arresting truth of a visible and tragic death; a death in plain view, not hidden behind the burning walls of our imagination.
This morning, I was treated to the picture of the Falling Man in my Facebook feed and immediately clicked on the Esquire story from 2009 and read it, fighting back tears, for what we have failed to recognize in the most tragic legacy of the post-9/11 era: avoidance.
Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of people died by leaping from a burning building, and we have somehow taken it upon ourselves to deem their deaths unworthy of witness — because we have somehow deemed the act of witness, in this one regard, unworthy of us.
This essay, by Tom Junod is amazing. Please read it and its follow-up. He deals with the attempt to find the identity of the Falling Man from the picture. He discovers along the way a rejection of this man, and all of the jumpers, because they are visible; their last moments available to the world. The still-grieving families hoping, demanding of their creator, that in facing death, their loved one didn’t choose death. That they fought till the end to come home or protect their friends or stayed with a loved one. Anything. Just not fear. Humanity. Deciding to die on their own terms.
I don’t judge them for this. It is the same self-preserving interest that allows the families of murder victims to expect vengeance or sending a scapegoat into the desert will provide relief for the pain they are feeling. And so many of us wanted to exercise that same feeling on the globe, hunting and destroying out of a sense of righteous vengeance. It is unsurprising that our geopolitical actions didn’t make it any better.
Closing Our Eyes, Stopping Our Ears
As I finished the essay, “Corner of Your Heart” by Ingrid Michaelson came on my Pandora station and I had to stop and listen. And the tears came. Even after the tenth year, we are still avoiding. I am avoiding it. Avoiding what 9/11 really is and how our response to it is everything.
As a Christian, we are to eschew violence, but that ship has sailed. And sailed again. And again since then. We allowed our collective victimhood to lead to collective anger. Yet we didn’t do the most basic work of dealing with the tragedy for what it really was. It wasn’t an evil act of violence that required a “good” act (of violence) for punishment. It was evil. Period. Our response is not to be vengeance, but discernment, examination, and actions of generosity and love. We saw much of this in the aftermath. But the drumbeats of war were loud, too loud, for us to drown out in songs of praise. And we were swayed by their intoxicating fragrance.
The biggest mistake came within a week of 9/11. We stopped examining the last moments of the victims. We ignored their pain and the awful experience of not only facing their own mortality, but the disturbing death by suffocation and burning. The true horrors of those final minutes and seconds, in which there was no way to get out, no hope for bodily rescue, and no opportunity to return home to their families. We stopped confronting the true evil and dealt only with the philosophical one. And every year on this day, I do precisely that, despite my mind’s attempt to put the images at the forefront. I push them back, replacing them with happy images of my family and friends.
As we are compelled throughout Scripture to open our eyes and ears to the suffering around us; to make ourselves available to those in trouble; to recognize the conditions of our people; to be moved to action by what we witness; we are also reminded that the action that these images direct us to is not revenge, but peacemaking. The Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount make this very argument: that we are to be moved by our witness toward acts of peace and reconciliation.
Therefore, as Christians we are called to face the hardest questions in the world and deal with them. We are to face evil, but not to fight fire with fire, but with love—evil’s equivalent of water.
Our tendency to avoid the hard questions makes it worse. We don’t face the evil, so we don’t deal with it at its source, and we allow the evil to spread and infect us and our response.
In ignoring and repelling the images of those that fell to their deaths, we are avoiding the very nature of 9/11, keeping its evil powerfully in command. We are rejecting the very truth of those last moments to keep alive an imposed dream of what filled those last moments. And we are rejecting them for what we wished they were.
Facing Death is Strength
The sister of one of the victims demonstrates an uncommon description of the existential dilemma. As the follow-up Esquire essay captures her:
Gwendolyn Briley Strand works in Washington, D.C. — what she calls “the epicenter of memorials” — and knows what cold comfort memorials bring. “They’re never the way that the families, the grieving people, deal with their loss,” she says. “They’re the way the world deals with its loss. They’re not for us. They’re for the rest of the country, and they’re for history.”
This is the very problem of the day: that we feel a certain thing and the victims and families have a different experience: a more complicated one. And we have struggled to recognize the difference.
I know my words are challenging. I feel that they need to be. Not because we’ve done anything “wrong”, but because those of us that are Christians have failed the basic task asked of us: to face the evil squarely and resist the temptation to do evil in return.
We have stratified some victims as lesser because they fell to their deaths rather than were buried or burned inside the building. We have pitted the families of victims and rescue workers against each other and their insurance companies and state and federal governments for respect and compensation owed them. But most of all, we have failed to deal with the one thing Christians are supposed to do: be a witness in death. We turned away from the very people that needed us to see them, and the very people we needed to see.
Briley Strand, whose brother may be the man in the photograph, said it extremely well:
“People have to get over wondering who this man was. He’s everybody. We’re so stuck on who he was that we can’t see what’s right there in front of us. The photo’s so much bigger than any man, because the man in the photo is clearly in God’s hands. And it’s God who gives us the grace to go on.”
We are the Falling Man because we are all facing death, making hard choices, and in the end, dying to ourselves.