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The Jumpers

By way of a Catallarchy article I read an Esquire story from last year about one of the most famous photographs from Sept. 11th 2001, the image of a man falling through the air with the World Trade Center towers in background.

The story makes the point that the images and videos of the jumpers were quickly scrubbed from the media. Some still talked about it, but very few continued to show it.

Near the 2002 anniversary I watched a program about the attacks. One video clip included a jumper. I wasn't expecting it, I wasn't prepared for it, and I remember gasping even before being consciously aware of what I was seeing. My shudder and recoil were a reflex, even a year later, having known that many people jumped and having seen the images before.

There is a good reason the media have kept these images in file rather than on the front page. They're powerful. They instantly evoke the anguish of that day in its rawest visceral form. Intellectually, we don't need the reminder, it adds nothing to our understanding of the facts — and emotionally, it has no outlet, but becomes a standing wave washing out everything else important to feel.

I want to remember. I don't need to see again. Once is enough. (That it happened at all, is too much.)

Reading the story I was struck by a daughter's reaction after her mother denies that the man in the image was from her family:

"They said my father was going to hell because he jumped," she says. "On the Internet. They said my father was taken to hell with the devil. I don't know what I would have done if it was him. I would have had a nervous breakdown, I guess. They would have found me in a mental ward somewhere. . . ."

She saw jumping as a surrender and a betrayal, and would be hurt if a loved one jumped.

I do not see the matter in those terms. I view it as an example of the most sacred dignity. A man, surrounded by heat and smoke and destruction, knowing his death was at hand, did not yield to his fate passively and silently. He asserted his humanity in the few alternatives still open to him. To choose the manner of one's death, when it is possible, is a noble decision. In his final act on earth, he chose to draw his last breath from the clean air away from the fire.

From hell, into the sky.

Tiny Island