A couple of weeks ago, on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on New York, I watched the documentary The Falling Man. It was a deeply disturbing narrative about the search to identify a person who was photographed falling or, as is more likely, jumping to his death from one of the Twin Towers before they collapsed. His was one of the iconic images of the day, the one many newspaper editors chose to feature prominently in their 9/12 editions.
It was a strikingly arresting photograph. The falling man looked peaceful, almost relaxed as he plummeted to certain death. Whoever he was, he appeared to have maintained his dignity in the most horrible of all imaginable situations. The documentary was fascinating and, after a few false starts, appeared to establish the identity of the man in the photograph, leading to an intensely moving interview with the man’s grieving sister.
Of course, the film makers eventually revealed that the Falling Man’s dignity was an illusion. They showed us the full sequence of images that the photographer had shot of the man, and he was not dignified; he was tumbling, out of control, in the way implacable gravity would demand of all of us. The ‘dignified’ photo was a fluke, but the power of the image was not diminished, at least for me.
What really interested me about the film, and, indeed, about the outpouring of images and memorials about 9/11 five years after the event, was the sense that, for the first time, we had gained a necessary distance. It had taken five years but, at last, we were collectively able to turn our eyes back to that dreadful day and look again.
I remember the day well. I slept through the original, live footage and woke to radio commentary that as I pulled on tracky daks for my morning walk told me something horrible had happened, but not what. As I walked through the pleasant spring morning, regular passers-by and others stopped to comment about how awful it all was. I didn’t dare ask what, just nodded and quickened my steps so I could get home and turn on CNN.
I watched it all day at work, weeping in horror with my co-workers, particularly at the images of people jumping. I vividly recall footage of an older woman, a tourist, I suspect, in a building near to the Towers watching desperate people jump; and her horrified, terrified response. Somehow, watching her visceral reaction was more disturbing than seeing what she saw. I covered my eyes and turned away many times that day, but I always returned, mesmerised, unable to bear either seeing or not seeing.
Thanks to emo
Once the initial media frenzy had died down, however, the worst of those images disappeared from view, particularly the images of the jumpers. I saw the remarkable documentary made by the two French brothers who were quite coincidentally spending time filming the work of the nearest fire crew, and also vividly recall how the brothers recorded the thumping sound of bodies landing on the roof above the foyer entrance of the Towers. They didn’t mean to, but their audio equipment picked up the sickening sound and the fire fighters’ responses.
As far as I know, that was the closest we got to re-living the horror of the disaster, until this year. It was as if the only way we could cope was to block images of that day from our minds. Indeed, according to The Falling Man documentary, many of the editors who ran the iconic picture of the falling man, decided to never run it again. Some of the participants in the film criticised the point of the film itself, wondering why the maker wanted to open old wounds and force people, often grieving people, to look again at horror. Yet most people participated, prepared to help the film maker on his quest, no matter what it cost them.
This year too, the film United 93 has been released to much praise. I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch the recreation, but many have including many from the victims’ families.
In some ways I think those who were actually bereaved by 9/11 have been better able to face up to the reality of what happened, and so expose themselves to the full horror and process it. After all, they have had no choice. As is the way with all who grieve, the grief must be faced and fully felt before life can go on. Even the families of those who have disappeared long for closure, they would rather know the worst, than nothing at all.
As far as 9/11 is concerned, the rest of us have turned our faces away and tried, as much as possible, to block it out. All we have allowed ourselves to feel has been anger. We have been hurt and so we have lashed out to hurt others. This is understandable, but dangerous. In my mind, this avoidance of the grief and horror has caused a kind of international paralysis. That’s why films like The Falling Man, far from being morbid or voyeuristic or unnecessary, are so important and give me hope that we may be beginning to move beyond anger.
Anger, I was taught many years ago, is a secondary emotion. It’s what we display when we are feeling something that we are not comfortable expressing. It can be triggered by fear, physical or psychological pain, or sadness.
What 9/11 brought us face to face with was the truth of our own vulnerability. We watched as people just like us: rich, confident, Western people were left with two equally terrible choices to burn or to jump. The illusion of safety was ripped away from us, our self-made cocoon unravelled, our bubble violently burst.
We maintain our anger and our punitive actions towards the ‘other’ (read Muslims) to protect us from this knowledge. It comforts us to believe that we could ‘bomb them back into the Stone Age’, as a White House official was recently accused of saying to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan just after 9/11. If we can punish them and make them more frightened of us than we are of them, then perhaps we can pretend we are safe once more.
But we are not safe and we never were. We were just as unsafe on 9/10 as we were on 9/12 just more deluded. The tragedy is that we seem to have spent the last five years re-establishing our delusion of safety rather than actually doing the hard work that might have made us safer. We knew how to do that once, but it took the full horror and exhaustion of a world war before we were able to come up with the Marshall Plan.
We will have to let go of our anger before that can happen again and that is why it is so hopeful that we are looking at the really terrifying personal images from 9/11 once more.
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