Falling into History

[Ed: 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 today–Tengrain]

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 blankness. 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” (actual quote).

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 since.

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11 Responses to Falling into History

  1. tommyspoon says:

    It’s a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day here in PDX. Just like it was back in DC 12 years ago. And maybe I’m a bit sensitive today, but this passage is like a burr under my saddle:

    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 blankness.

    “Wretched”? My Father-in-Law was working in that “wretched” building when it was struck. Over a hundred people, most civilians, died in that “wretched” building.

    It’s a nice piece, but that was an unnecessary modifier.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to take in the air for a bit. I’m feeling melancholy and homesick.


    • tengrain says:

      Tommy –

      In my dictionary, the top definition for Wretched is

      1 I felt so wretched without you: miserable, unhappy, sad, heartbroken, grief-stricken, sorrowful, sorry for oneself, distressed, desolate, devastated, despairing, disconsolate, downcast, dejected, crestfallen, cheerless, depressed, melancholy, morose, gloomy, mournful, doleful, dismal, forlorn, woebegone; informal blue; literary dolorous. ANTONYMS cheerful.

      It is not until the 5th definiton that we get to perjoratives:

      5 he’s a wretched coward: despicable, contemptible, reprehensible, base, vile, loathsome, hateful, detestable, odious, ignoble, shameful, shabby, worthless; informal dirty, rotten, lowdown, lousy. ANTONYMS fortunate.

      I think that the writer was not editorializing the work done there so much as citing how the Pentagon too was hit, lives taken, etc.




      • tommyspoont says:

        Sigh…. you’re probably right. Man, I’ve just been on the verge of tears for the last hour. I think because the weather today is an exact match to 12 years ago.

        I think I need a nap. Or a glass of whiskey. Perhaps both.


      • tengrain says:

        ‘Spoon – it’s alright to feel overwhelmed today. I think we all feel overwhelmed today.

        The sky out here in California is the same blue as in 2001, too, and I woke up at 6:30 this morning to 10 jets landing in the course of 10 minutes. I really thought I was back in time and started freaking out, it really was like history repeating itself for me. What’s so strange is that I did not know (yet) that it was the anniversary.




  2. Pingback: 9-11″Falling Into History” | herlander-walking

  3. Big Bad Bald Bastard says:

    My great and good friend Ned Beaumont Jr always writes beautifully about 9/11 and he links to an incredible essay written by an old friend of his.


  4. grs says:

    It really is the events and decisions that have been made since that day, on a federal-state-political-economic level, and how minor decisions and actions could have taken us in such a different direction. My bewilderment is how people made the decisions that were made – knowing that decisions were made in deceit, that they were wrong, shortsighted, and be damned the consequences. Cold, calculated decisions to manipulate in the name of power. Decisions made not for the power of the country or society as a whole, but in name of one’s self, or at best , some small, minor regional grab. It’s sad and it’s tiring.


  5. Pissed in NYC says:

    That was dead on. Thanks, Ten. I work in a buidling that is across the street from what is now the biggest construction site in the city, formerly the site of the World Trade Towers. Oddly, this year I didn’t see any crowds, or barriers, or anything that at all, really.
    And one more thing: the thing that disgusted me the most with the gov’t response after 9/11 was W telling us to go shopping. People wanted to hear that we needed to do something a bit more than be a drone with a wallet.


  6. Bruce388 says:

    Charles Pierce had a good entry on 9/11 today from a Chilean point of view.


  7. Jim-Bob says:

    I know personally what it means to be living in a war zone. As a father of four in the 80s, I did it three times in Nicaragua during Reagan’s terrorist contra wars. Then twice in Haiti. Once in Croatia, then behind enemy lines (via UN tank) in Bosnia. Yes, those people who were fatefully caught up in the 9-11 obscenity share the feelings of wretched innocents everywhere who are trapped in villainous circumstances by madmen who have taken over their particular corner of reality. Trust me: There is no fear that approaches being trapped amidst insane, murderous circumstances.
    And yes, I remember what I was doing right after 9-11. A small group of us in northern Vermont were protesting in front of the post office, Friday after Friday, against the looming gratuitous wars that would kill so many wretched innocents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libia…Syria?…Iran?. I remember being shoved from the sidewalk during one of those demonstrations, and barely holding on to the pacifist principles we held so dear. And I remember waiting for the Muslim terrorist “cells” (we were told there were hundreds of them, you may recall), to sneak into shopping malls across the country with their AK-47s (or their Uzis), and wipe out the Christmas shopping season on Black Friday. Whatever happened to all those “cells” they warned us about?
    And I remember puzzling about how 19 mostly Saudi, poorly-trained “pilots” with boxcutters were able to outwit the entire US military/security industry, without the support of any government or intelligence agency, and take down buildings, one after another, in the most secure air corrider in the world.
    I took a long bus ride to NYC on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, with a foamcore sign that I had folded into my luggage. My sign spoke of the falling man and his nearly three thousand companions in death. The sign read: “We honor the victims by learning the truth.” Several family members of victims from that day came up and thanked me for the sign. One on-duty fireman told me that many of his brother and sister firefighters who–like himself–had been there that day, agreed with my sign. But, he said, they were not permitted to talk about what they believed they knew.
    We will never be able to truly honor that falling man in the Dockers until we are brave enough to demand the truth. Sorry to be so longwinded, and–I guess–so evasive. But you get my point.


  8. Lowell says:

    Dear friend,

    What a powerful essay! Thank you for sharing it and I wanted to let you know that I “borrowed” it for Contextual Criticism today even though it is a day late. Perhaps it’s an essay that should be read every day for it serves as a reminder that our free fall continues as our rights are erased and the militarists continue their misadventures and the Unamericans at the CIA, the FBI, NSA, etc., work their spying and slicing up of what’s left of our freedoms behind closed doors and under cover of bureaucratic darkness.

    I did, of course, give you credit! Thanks very much!



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