It's a day too late in the sense that a 9/11 essay should have been printed on 9/11, but on 9/12 it still resonates. I found it on "Mock, Paper, Scissors," the delicious blog of my friend, Tengrain. It is powerful and very moving and sad. But it puts the event into perspective and rightly castigates those who joined the jingoist bandwagon even before the smoke cleared.
This is from the SF Chronicle from 2006, which seems like a
lifetime ago; It was written by Neva Chonin, who has long since gone
from there. I still think this essay remains the best writing about
September 11 that I have encountered. This essay has fallen into the
void and is no longer on their servers. I want to ensure that it remains
on the web, so I am including it verbatim. Oh, we're keeping it on top
He’s one of those average men you pass without noticing. A little
tubby, wearing beige Dockers and a pink polo shirt. Not much to look
at, were it not for the fact that this particular guy is flying. No,
flying is the wrong word — he’s falling, falling through the blue sky, a
lifetime of memories clutched in his outstretched hands and nothing we
know about below.
He’s falling into history.
I can’t remember when or why I started Googling the words “Sept.
11″ and “falling.” I was looking for … something. Chills? Answers? What I
found were pictures of the jumpers — the people trapped on the upper
floors of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, who chose to breathe
free one last time before dying. Some leaped from their offices holding
hands, lines of them, clinging to one another until gravity and wind
tore them apart. A solo jumper, dubbed “The Falling Man” by media, went
on to become emblematic of that day’s unanswered questions.
But it’s the guy in the Dockers, my own private falling man, who
haunts me. He’s helped me, too, because five years later I think I
finally know why the day of his death owns a horror all its own. It’s
got nothing to do with flags and national security and God bless
America. It’s basic and internal. It’s this: the disorientation of
witnessing the average turn surreal, like a Magritte painting that has
escaped its frame and invaded the world to upset the equilibrium of what
we earnestly call “reality.”
This, too: It’s the shock of seeing an arrogant and seemingly
untouchable superpower sucker-punched on its own turf for the first
time, not by another superpower but by humans as puny as we are, whose
only weapon is their confounding will to die. It’s the eeriness of
watching two iconic towers taken out by passenger planes turned
passenger missiles. It felt, then as now, like a conspiracy against
reason. Jets do not fly into buildings. Except when they do. A guy in
Dockers doesn’t fall from the sky. Except when he does. The whole day
defied logic, because it couldn’t have happened. Except it did.
I can grasp the horror of civilians in war zones, living under
daily bombardment and burying neighbors and family after every air raid.
That was my mother’s life, and her stories are programmed into my
brain. What I can’t imagine are the feelings of those trapped in either
missiles or targets on Sept. 11. I can’t, for instance, fathom seeing
office cubicles disintegrate around me, or watching from a coach-class
window seat while my plane descends toward the World Trade Center or the
wretched Pentagon or, in the case of United 93, a rolling rural
These experiences remain so defiantly strange and outside the
repertoire of war that I’m left without context, and without context
I’m bewildered. Their singularity defies description. Maybe it was like
walking on the moon or surviving a death camp; you had to have been
there to know what it was like.
That’s the revelation my falling man gave me: That I will never
understand. For me, the tragedy of Sept. 11 has always been measured in
political fallout. I remember a friend commenting, two days after the
planes hit, “Well, that’s it for Iraq.” He saw the future closing in
even then, and he wasn’t the only one.
But the rest of the country — liberal, conservative, atheist,
evangelical, gay, straight, black, white — was too busy waving flags to
hear reason. Polls continue to show that at least half of the American
public believes Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks. Yes, they
are just that stupid. Don’t make excuses for them. Don’t blame Fox News
for telling them what they want to hear.
Let’s talk about liberal responsibility, instead. Let’s talk
about why Democrats of all stripes felt free to put our civil rights
into our president’s neoconservative hands. Do you remember what you
were doing in the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001? Do you remember your
cowardice? I do.
I remember Sandra Bernhard, daring to tell an anti-Bush joke at
the Warfield that fall, being booed by a “liberal” San Francisco
audience. I also remember writing a column at about the same time
questioning where all the flag-waving and jingoism would lead us, and
receiving hundreds — yeah, hundreds — of hate letters. That’s not
counting the death threats. And I remember getting a few pathetic
messages from self-identified Bay Area “progressives” saying they shared
my misgivings, but “would never say so in public, of course, ha ha”
Ha ha. See you at the next protest picnic, heroes. If you still
think the White House cared about anything more than its own agenda and
the cost of real estate when it watched the twin towers go down, if you
still believe Bush and company shed one tear for the people trapped in
those buildings, well. Wherever your mind’s at must be a sweet, peaceful
place. I hope I never go there.
Five years after reality went boom, taking our Constitution,
civil rights and common sense with it, I can finally cry for the people
who died that day, those whose deaths have been so ruthlessly exploited
and memories abused. This, thanks to the image of a guy in Dockers
falling through the warm September air. I cry for the unique terror of
his death, and I cry because he reminds me of how far we’ve all sunk.
His descent lasted less than a minute; we’ve been in a free fall ever