The Falling Man of 9-11: From memory to action

September 11, 2014
September 11, 2014

LOS ANGELES, September 12, 2014 — With the beheading of two American journalists by ISIS — or “Islamic State” as it now calls itself — and the terror organization’s declaration of jihad against America, the term “War on terror” is back in our vocabulary and our consciousness.

That war began on September 11, 2001 with the worst attack on American soil to date. Thirteen years later, we continue to feel the weight of that horrific act: airplanes crashing into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center towers, a field in Pennsylvania, and the loss of nearly 3,000 lives. Each year, there are ceremonies where the names of the victims are read and moments of silence. We replay the images, and we commit to never forget. We remember that day with somberness, gravity, and solemnity.

As the years increase, and as our proximity to the tragedy diminishes, the more complacent we are likely to become. We live in a generation that barely remembers or acknowledges Pearl Harbor or D-Day, the bookends of World War II, days that also changed our nation forever. In order to avoid complacency, we must consciously reacquaint and remind ourselves of the impact of that day, for ourselves and future generations.

As more images about 9/11, stories from those who experienced the horror, and historical works about its effect on our country are distributed or produced, the better equipped we are to combat the forgetful, the foolish naysayers, and the complacent.

My commitment to “never forget” involved reacquainting myself with the 2006 documentary The Falling Man. Directed by Henry Singer, and based on an article by Tom Junod, who also wrote the documentary script, The Falling Man was originally a photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, of a man who leapt from the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center and plummeted headfirst to the ground.


The subject of the image, whose identity remains uncertain, either fell searching for safety or jumped to escape the fire and smoke. The documentary first gives context for the surreal beginnings of the day, and how the nation and individuals responded to a great unknown. It then moves on to explain the specific image, and why news media and the general public deemed it unacceptable to republish the images or to talk about the over 200 people who, for whatever reason, fell or jumped from the Towers.

Officially, all deaths in the 9-11 attacks, except those of the hijackers, were ruled homicides, not suicides. The New York City medical examiner’s office said it did not classify the people who fell to their deaths on September 11 as “jumpers”, because “A ‘jumper’ is someone who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide … These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out.”

The story culminates with Junod’s search for the identity of The Falling Man, and how this search resulted in certain conclusions about the way Americans and the families of the fallen, choose to remember.

Gwendolyn Briley, sister of 9/11 victim Jonathan Briley, one of the individuals thought to be the Falling Man, said this about Junod’s discovery: “I hope we’re not trying to figure out who he is, and more figure out who we are by watching that.”

A fair question: Who are we 13 years down the line?

If you listen to the talking heads and columnists, we are either “war weary” or we suffer from “war fever” because we want action taken against the horrors perpetrated by ISIS.

We have a presidential administration that refuses to use the words “terror” or “war,” despite the fact that ISIS are terrorists, and they have waged war against us. Is this how we honor the lives lost on 9/11, or the blood and treasure sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It is not, and most Americans no doubt feel the same. No one loves war. But what really matters is that the sacrifices of those who fought and died are not in vain. Allowing two Americans to be slaughtered without any form of action against the perpetrators would be just that. Yet we have an administration that is queasy and half-measured in its policy against a potentially deadlier threat than the hijackers of 9/11. One moment the president declares we will “degrade and destroy” ISIS, and in the next, Secy. of State John Kerry says, “war is the wrong terminology and analogy”.

Charles Krauthammer wrote in the New York Daily News, “Obama’s reluctance and ambivalence are obvious. This is a man driven to give this speech by public opinion. It shifted radically with the televised beheading of two Americans. Every poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly want something to be done — and someone to lead the doing.”

So the battle is not between “war weary” and “war fever” but between a 9/10 mentality and a 9/12 mentality. Americans want to see their fallen not only honored, but vindicated; to know that they did not die needlessly.

Hence the point of The Falling Man. The still startling imagery of a man possibly making a choice — even if that choice is to jump from a building rather than be burned alive — sears into the conscience. The documentary narrator opines, “The images [of the falling man] was a fitting and just memorial to them; because it forced the world to acknowledge and remember the terrible events of that day.”

The writer Tom Junod continued this line of thought: “One of the reasons why I became so determined to plumb the meaning of the falling man, because we can’t hope to understand these incredible times unless we look at these images, and accept the witness of these images.”

The Obama administration needs to have fewer moments of silence, and more moments to remember that terrible day, coupled with a strong clarion to action, or we are doomed to see such a day repeated.


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