Falling into History

Got it: white is patriotic.

Got it: white is patriotic.

[Ed: We’ve been running this post since the blog began. It is from the SF Chronicle a lifetime ago, from 2006 when we were younger and perhaps less cynical. This essay itself has fallen into the void and is no longer on the SF Chron’s servers. I want to ensure that it remains on the web, so I am including it verbatim.

This essay was written by Neva Chonin (author of the long gone and lamented Live! Rude! Girl! column), who has since left The Chron; I do not know where she writes now and I wish I did. I think this essay easily remains the best writing about September 11 that I have encountered. Oh, we’re keeping it on top today, anything new will be below–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.

PS – Thanks a lot, Chimpy! LATimes: “Seventeen years after Sept. 11, Al Qaeda may be stronger than ever”

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Chimpy's Great Adventure, holidays, Iraq, September 11, Today in History. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Falling into History

  1. Redhand says:

    What a great column. Back then I lived in Lyndhurst, NJ, Bergen County in “North Jersey,” within sight of the twin towers. Living in proximity to the disaster was terrible. Smoke rose from the site seemingly forever, days and days.

    I wish they were still standing: the monolithic “Freedom Tower” is no substitute, and the America they represented is long gone. Things have only gotten worse since Ms. Chonin wrote her column. But, yeah, it’s a keeper.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Each year I read these words here… thank you for posting them. I have probably mentioned that my friend’s husband was the photographer of the famous “Falling Man” image. May all who perished, not only that day, but as a result of that day, be at peace and rest.


  3. Good day to remember that every year about 30,000 Americans with guns kill themselves or other Americans. Ten 911’s, every year.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. moeman says:

    Always a great read/reminder.


  5. Jim says:

    On that day, 17 years ago, I was flying back to the US from Indonesia and scheduled to land at LAX. I looked out the window and thought the San Gabriel mountains unusually green. Other than the usual tray tables up, neither the pilots nor the stewardesses said anything to us. And then we landed and saw Canadian flags whipping past us and at least 50 jumbo jets parked all over the place. Only then, did the pilot tell us what had happened and then he turned on the radio.
    We were in Vancouver, BC, a gorgeous city and a gracious people, not LAX. I didn’t get home for another five days, sleeping on church floors and touring the beautiful city. I will never forget that time.


    • Redhand says:

      Vancouver IS a beautiful City, but WHAT a way to see it!

      The towers were literally part of my landscape, visible from the window of my old corporate office when I formerly worked there (I got laid off after 20 yrs) in June 2001. From the local diner that me and my Russian goil-friend (now my wife) went to, you could also see them in the distance looking across the NJ “Meadowlands.” That morning is burned in my brain forever, when I saw one, and then the other fall on live TV, as they sagged and collapsed like drunken men unable to stand up — and then looked outside and saw the smoke towering skyward. It burned for days and days, like it would NEVER stop.

      In a state of shock, and with nothing else to do (since I was on severance) I drove down local Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ to a Starbucks, trying to take it all in. When I walked in the place, they said they were closing for the day. In fact, just about EVERYTHING came to a screeching halt, in a “The Day The Earth Stood Still” kind of way. It’s one of the strangest and saddest days I have ever experienced.

      The one positive thing for me from 9/11 was that it cemented my desire to make a radical career change from corporate law to immigration law, because I felt immigration was going to be THE socially relevant legal issue in our society for many years to come. (Little did I know!) It’s depressing as hell to realize that the war over immigration shows no sign of abating, and is getting worse. A large part of our society has learned nothing from 9/11.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. David Stonesifer says:

    I can’t believe Trump had the nerve to show up in Shanksville today, after all the obnoxious, malicious lies he spread about 9/11.


  7. Big Bad Bald Bastard says:

    It started off as a flawless late summer day, the perfect day on which to play hooky. The people in the towers who were killed were hardworking people, the sort of people who go to work early on a glorious summer morning- most of them having just started families, just entered into their prime socially and career-wise.


    • Bruce388 says:

      When I got up that morning (central New Jersey) I thought the morning could not have been prettier. It was a glorious day until the reports started coming in.

      Four years later I had a few dates with a woman who lost her son at the WTC. He had started a job there about 30 days earlier with Cantor Fitzgerald, with plans to open a suburban office close to home. His was one of the first bodies identified, which makes me think he was one of the jumpers. A question I would never ask her.

      9/11 has to be the worst day of the year for her.


  8. Karla says:

    Thank you for keeping this article alive. I am captivated by it every time.


  9. donnah says:

    Thank you.


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