Peter Murkett: A day when the world watched history unfold

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MONTEREY — Everyone knows what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

The next day, The New York Times published an image made by AP photographer Richard Drew. In it the fa ades of both towers of the World Trade Center completely fill the frame, their strong vertical lines perfectly aligned with it. Horizontal divisions form faint parallel lines at an angle. We are looking up. The lighter/darker vertical boundary of the overlapping towers is perfectly centered in the image, and on that boundary a small human form plummets straight down, head first. Black trousers and shoes, white shirt or coat, a dark head; one knee bent, arms at the sides.

The photo was published all over the world — then shunned, after it provoked a torrent of outrage at media: it was disaster porn, shameful exploitation of a nameless person in extremis. Its confounding beauty was rejected amid the horror.

The image was soon named The Falling Man. The person (most likely Jonathan Briley, an audio visual technician from Windows on the World) did not maintain the posture caught in the photograph. He flailed and tumbled, the same as everyone else who fell that day — as long as ten seconds, accelerating to speeds well over a hundred miles an hour. They spilled off the towers one after another. One landed on a firefighter in the mayhem on the street, killing him.

Soon both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in twin cascades packed with lives destroyed in billowing clouds, on camera. A third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. In a fourth plane, passengers and cabin crew members, by now in the know, fought the hijackers. That plane crashed in a field. It was the best they could do, jihadis and civilians alike.

In two heartstopping hours, world history crested a triple black diamond and sped straight down on unknown terrain. Nineteen men had committed perfectly orchestrated suicide as they murdered nearly 3,000 unsuspecting civilians and dramatically destroyed symbolic American targets. They lacked a common state, but they shared a certain global perspective; their crime felt like, and caused, global war.

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We watched this unfold in real time, then watched its central horror replayed over and over again. The amphitheater surrounding the twin towers circled the planet, and it was sold out, with no bad seats. A third of the world population was that close to an attack astonishing for its improvised, lopsided success. Hard-core partisans were exultant or enraged, but surely most people saw themselves in the moment as global citizens, simply human. Watching, they silently imagined tumult in the familiar interior of an airplane; they imagined a stairwell; the crazy street; searing offices choked with smoke; the box trap of an elevator; falling. Humans have a unique capacity to imagine what we dread. Such imagined horrors simmer in the mind, altering everything.

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At the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, there is an alcove deliberately set off from the museum's thematic descent into the cacophony of the day. There, beyond a sign that warns of the display's "disturbing" nature, one enters a quieter space like a nave or chapel, to see The Falling Man, along with other, similar images, including one made of words projected on the wall, the brief account of one who watched a woman in a business suit stand a long time at the edge, then modestly tug down the hem of her skirt, smooth it, and step off. Another witness spoke of this watching as a sacrament, an act honoring the flight of souls. Those who fell, separating themselves from the doomed buildings early in the catastrophe, made the final moments of individual lives briefly visible, their deaths palpable. The events that soon followed compacted so much more pain, death, and destruction into such a short time span that mental fuses simply blew. We could no longer take it in.

After years had passed, that early vision of horrifying death had acquired its own hushed room. What shall we make of the near-universal early judgment against the one image, and its subsequent enshrinement? What is "disturbing" about the display in this particular room?

The uncanny beauty of The Falling Man lies with the image's hint of serenity in chaos, of equanimity in a human arrow pointing straight down fast. The determined composure of a woman meeting fate on her own terms offers a similarly pure bell-note of deliverance.


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Before a visitor reaches that quiet, disturbing room in the 9/11 Museum, he has seen artist Spencer Finch's mosaic, titled "Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning." It consists of 2,983 individual squares of Fabriano Italian paper, one for every person killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, each hand-painted a shade of blue.

It is the only work of art commissioned for the museum, and it evokes the emotional nature of memory. But it also celebrates a natural beauty above and beyond the day's human ugliness, for the sky that day was a rich, limitless blue, what pilots and meteorologists call `severe clear.'

The Museum's commissioned artwork and its roomful of images are a considered response, cultural coin deliberately minted from the human experience of the day, focused on beauty and fleet moments of clarity in an episode of overwhelming chaos and cruelty. They are disturbing. What they disturb is the overstated finality of killing your enemy, of death itself. Watch closely: the cycle of violence wobbles, a small window opens onto a world beyond grief and rage.

There are other worlds, and how we reach them — individually, socially, culturally — is the abiding mystery that accompanies our tour through the everyday world of danger and pain, sacrifice and hope.

Peter Murkett is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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