The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden brought back memories and mixed emotions for many of us who were eyewitnesses and family members of victims. I happen to be both. It got me musing about my 9/11 experience and where I am with it almost ten years down the road.
SNL’s Seth Meyers summed it up: “Hey White House -- armed, unarmed, not resisting, holding a bunny, we're totally cool with you shooting Osama Bin Laden” and I admit, I agree. Bin Laden committed terrible acts of evil.
Something about the celebrating was disturbing though. Granted, it is very difficult to contain the human impulse for revenge. The desire to release some of that emotion is understandable. We all want to put this horror behind us; but one of the glories of our humanity is that we can choose how we conduct ourselves in both victory and defeat.
On September 11, 2001 I was working at Lehman Brothers’ headquarters, across the street from the towers. Our buildings were inter-connected by a web of bridges and walkways; it was a community of businesses, work-day routines, local rituals and friendships. When the planes hit, our building emptied. Many of my colleagues fled north, up West Street. Two of us exited through the lobby of the winter garden that led to the marina where the ferry ran across the Hudson River. As we darted down that chosen path, I was warned not to look back; but I did. What I saw were men floating through the air. The people on the ground staring up at the sky were shocked by the sight, faces frozen in time.
That must have been the same moment that Richard Drew captured his iconic image of the “Falling Man”. If you are not familiar with the photo, it shows one man freefalling towards certain death. While there has been much debate about whether that image should have been made public, it memorializes a real moment in a profound human experience. Even in the midst of my own escape, even as I wondered about the fate of my own brother, John McErlean, I knew in my heart that I was there as a witness. Capturing that image in my mind was an important part of being there. People were jumping from the towers. I chose to look and was astounded by the incredible power of the last act of free will of those incredible people. Some experiences are beyond our ability to explain with words.
Mr. Drew was a seasoned photojournalist who instinctively captured that moment which seems to symbolize that even in the face of death we are free. It was not the first time that Mr. Drew’s work would face the possibility of censorship ~ he was at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 and photographed the graphic aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s murder. In a world where our news is increasingly self-curated, it is important to have an objective recording of the facts, no matter how difficult. To process those facts and understand their meaning, we need art.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to speak at length with Marc Jordan who has written a song, "Falling Man", that pays homage to that same iconic moment. Like photojournalist Richard Drew, this is not the first time that Marc has exposed difficult themes. In 1982 he penned “Rhythms of My Heart” for Rod Stewart. The song, written from a soldier’s point of view, explores the non-lethal, but very disturbing costs of war. It illustrates one soldier’s difficulty reconciling the horrors of war with his memories of life back home. The song, which carries a strong anti-war message, was banned by the BBC during Operation Desert Storm.
Like all of us after 9/11 Marc sought to make sense of the events by wading through all the news coverage and documentaries he could find. Two things really struck him. First were the messages left on answering machines by dozens of people choosing to reach out to their loved ones with final words of reassurance and love. Second was Richard Drew’s image of the “Falling Man”.
Some human experiences cannot neatly be put away in a box. They are often so difficult we don’t discuss them. How then are we to learn from and face our history? It is through art that we are reminded what is noble in our dueling nature. We need the witnesses, the artists, the singers, the journalists and storytellers to help us understand our human experience and, hopefully, make change by making different choices.