Falling birds can not manage to vanish

September 12, 2010

Photographs of people falling from the North and South towers of the World Trade Center (9.11.2001) were published in countless newspapers on the morning following the attack. It was a part of the story in television and radio coverage… but only in the first stage of the marathon. By September 13th, “the jumpers” had virtually vanished.
This was not some back-room conspiracy. It was spasm of self-censorship, repeated and mimicked across an entire country.  Angry audiences objected to the terrible images. Editors responded by averting our gaze.

This one bit of the story almost, but not completely, vanished.Esquire Magazine (Sept 2003) published “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod. This article, centered around one photograph of a single falling man, stirred the set-aside pot. What does it say about us we allowed our horror, and a taboo, erase this part of the story?

Why does their disappearance upset me?
Why are their part of the story so important?

Allow me to do this by way of a story… about where their tale intersects my own…

On that day, I happen to be listening to National Public Radio. (I was driving down Long Island, towards Manhattan, but that’s a story for elsewhere). A news bulletin announced that there had been reports of an explosion at the World Trade Center. Very shortly afterwards, the WNYC suddenly fell to static.
WYNC, it wasn’t hard to realize, was broadcasting from an antenna on top of one of the World Trade Center towers. (It turns out that this was on roof of the North Tower, the first to be hit. The heat from the resulting fire must have fairly quickly reached the roof and destroyed the antenna).
I pulled off the highway — about 30 miles from New York City — and started flipping through the dial.
While others gathered around television sets to watch the unfolding spectacle, I was confined to radio.
(It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, almost nine years afterwards, that I saw the television footage that millions and millions of people saw that day… and repeated over and over again).
Confined to radio, unable to see the obscene theater of the second plane hitting the South Tower, it took quite a while for the severity of the situation to sink in. I certainly wasn’t ignoring what was going on… I was flipping through the radio dial, excited to be so close to what was obviously a major event. This may seem a little less troubling if you understand that I had spent much of my university time studying the peace/conflict side of  “International Relations” (terrorism and American foreign policy were major topics).
But World Trade Center attack was — with terrible brilliance — designed to be seen. The second plane struck 17 minutes after the first… perfectly timed: several cameras were broadcasting live images of the fire up in the North Tower, accidentally capturing the second plane striking the South Tower.
No radio-bound words could come close to matching the power of that bit of footage.

What did jolt me out of my mind out of its whirling mode, treating the whole thing as an exciting moment for analysis?
The jumpers.
I remember it as a child’s voice asking “are those birds?”. In fact, I can still hear that child… and that innocent, but horrible question.
(From reading the other day, I found references to a mother trying to comfort her child by telling her that “those are only birds”. Whichever).
It was the thought of people falling hundreds of feet to the concrete which jarred me into a more compassionate mode. The next day, the news-photographs pushed me further.

The images of the doomed fell out of circulation almost as quickly as those people fell to the ground. Within 48 hours, they were gone.
I hate that we made the jumpers vanish.
Something which jolted me into compassion… was ushered out of sight, into a the confines of a taboo.

The images froze the them in mid air. The doomed were suspended in terrible flight.
Did we think that by making the images vanish, we’d stop what gravity says next? Did we leave them suspended in the air?

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