Amherst Magazine

The Pain of War

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Richard Drew, A Person Falls Headfirst From the North Tower of the New York World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001

Person falling from World Trade Center.

A Person Falls Headfirst From the North Tower of the New York World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001, 2001, gelatin silver print, by Richard Drew. Courtesy Associated Press/WideWorld Photos.

“For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse.…”

This observation, drawn from Tom Junod’s altogether-riveting article in Esquire, September 2003, sheds light on why A Person Falls Headfirst momentarily captured the imagination of the post-9/11 American public and why it came so quickly to be suppressed.

Although eyewitness police reports accounted for only 50 jumpers, well-documented non-police reports tell of many more, probably more than 200. This spectacle of serial suicide was disturbing to many. It was not just that these poor souls faced the ultimate choice—do I die by fire or by force of gravity? It was also that this was supposed to be—had to be—a spectacle of mass murder. America was under attack. Innocents had been slaughtered. Heroism was sought and found in the actions of fire fighters and police officers, of passengers on the doomed plane in Pennsylvania, of office workers who shepherded co-workers down the stairs and went back to save others.

A Person Falls Headfirst—which was only one in a series of shots, the rest of which depict a human being struggling fiercely against the surging air—is a study in verticality, an arrow of some kind of perfected purpose. It reminds me of James Dickey’s poem “Falling,” about an airline stewardess sucked from a jetliner, descending first in terror, then shedding clothes and fears, and finally (“the air beast-crooning to her,” dreaming “of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil...hurtling” in “a fall / That is controlled,” that “turns gravity into a new condition”) accepting an ultimate embrace with the earth.

The photographer Richard Drew probably chose A Person Falls Headfirst in response to a similarly redemptive urge. But it was not received as such. It was not false beauty that evoked outrage; it was unwelcome truth. One argument for censorship was humanitarian, protective of persons: The victim’s loved ones would suffer horribly if they were forced to see, over and again, the sight of a father or son or wife or grandchild flailing desperately against the inevitable. The other argument was communal, protective of something far more elusive—culture, values, common decency.

Both arguments are suspect. It is not coincidental that they are echoed today in the rationales offered by government (and media) officials who suppress images of war. Battlefield carnage—which, in this era of asymmetrical warfare mostly means their dead—is never shown and almost never mentioned on television or in the newspapers. And images of the stream of returning coffins—which means our dead—have been suppressed with perfect efficiency. To protect the families, says the Pentagon. To protect our culture from coarsening before the pornography of violence, say the moralists and pundits.

A Person Falls Headfirst may tell us otherwise. Death, like sex, fascinates as much as it disturbs. We are drawn to look, then recoil from our own fascination. Even heroic death in service to the nation, even the most understandable of suicides, must then be recomposed into reassuring narratives or visual tableaus: the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch; Saddam in chains; Mission Accomplished. Punctiliously, the cameras turn from shredded flesh, the microphones from the cursing and wailing of the dying. And also from the sight of the jumpers, the sound of their bodies thudding, one after another, on the ground below. Suppression of A Person Falls Headfirst reminds us that the deniers of death remain well-armored and proud of their service to us all.

—Francis G. Couvares, E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies

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