No image of September 11, 2001 has impacted me more than the one you see above. I see grace, I see calmness, I see strength.
But I also see death.
In this single frozen moment in time, I see fear face-to-face; a fear of death, a fear of the unknown beyond our consciousness on Earth, a fear that ten seconds after this photograph was taken this man was not in heaven, nor even ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is the fear that this man was shunned from eternal rest, cast away into the underworld.
It is a fear that coalesces spirituality with secularism. It is not only my fear. It is a fear so strong that even the supposed family of the Falling Man refused to believe the man was their blood.
"No benevolent God would send this man to hell for killing himself."
Those are the words attached to this image, a secret sent to the website PostSecret.com.
This striking image and words adorned to its lower half have resonated across the Internet since the image went live early Sunday morning. The discussion has been very enlightening the past several days, even reaching as far as Reddit.com.
These words invoke a lot of feelings and thoughts in my mind. You may expect they would.
Because I wrote them.
The story of the Falling Man is a story worth telling. It is a story captured in the bounds of only ten seconds the morning of September 11, 2001. But it is also a story unbounded in its impact.
The above picture, a capture of strength, calmness, and order, belies the truth behind the Falling Man's descent toward the ground. It is but one photograph among a sequence, the rest depicting the chaos of a flailing plunge toward Earth.
The Falling Man elicits the entire spectrum of emotions associated with September 11th - sadness, horror, and fear; courage, strength, and bravery. That a family would shun that man as one of their own over a fear about the circumstance of his death suggests that the words inscribed in black marker on that image invoke feelings that are not exclusive to myself.
Tom Junod's Esquire piece that I linked to above elegantly completes the story of the man captured in that iconic image. The search for the Falling Man's identity was long and arduous, but it was believed to be finished after Mr. Junod came into contact with the family of Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at the Windows on the World restaurant that sat atop the North Tower.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Hernandez family fractured apart, primarily over a dispute regarding the identity the Falling Man. Norberto's daughter Catherine offered a glimpse into why the family refused to believe Falling Man was their blood.
She asks for copies of the pictures so that she can show them to the people who believed that Norberto jumped out a window, while Catherine sits on the step with her palm spread over her heart. "They said my father was going to hell because he jumped," she says. "On the Internet. They said my father was taken to hell with the devil.
Her mother is standing at the front door, about to go back inside her house. Her face has already lost its belligerent pride and has turned once again into a mask of composed, almost wistful sadness. "Please," she says as she closes the door in a stain of morning sunlight. "Please clear my husband's name."
The story of Norberto Hernandez eventually became the story of Jonathan Briley. The Hernandez family got their wish, as after further investigation it was discovered that the Falling Man was not Norberto, but instead a different Windows on the World worker.
Of all the September 11th families desperate for any physical item from their fallen loved one, to me it is quite striking that family would rejoice so much that perhaps the most emotional and provocative image from that day did not capture their family member. The image would certainly be painful for the family of the Falling Man, but perhaps even a final image is better than emptiness.
* * *
Though the photograph above was captured on September 11, 2001, its underlying story extends beyond that single day. It is a story that brings together spirituality and secularism into the same room and makes them debate it out.
This is why I wrote what I wrote:
I have heard before from certain groups of Christians who consider suicide a sin that results in that person's soul being sent to hell. The argument behind this belief is as follows - because the afterlife with God is divine and eternally restful, there must be a barrier in place to prevent people from ending their lives prematurely to rush their ascent toward heaven. An additional argument is that because "thou shall not kill" is one of the Ten Commandments, a person who commits suicide is committing a sin and cannot repent because he or she is dead.
Though, as many of the commenters pointed out on Reddit.com and the PostSecret Community, anyone who fell from the Twin Towers on 9/11 did not enter the building knowing they were going to jump. They were forced not into a choice of not whether they would die, but how they would. They took that decision into their own hands. Therefore, medical examiners ruled those who jumped as homicides attributed to the terrorists.
My words are a criticism of religious (and particularly, Christian) absolutism. Even though many claim the Falling Man had no true choice, he did indeed. Choice for one of several methods of death, while extremely distressing and saddening, is choice nonetheless. And the choice of the Falling Man, when interpreted through the lense of a Christian absolutist, is that of suicide. And in that same lense, that of a one way ticket to hell.
Ironically, we hear constantly from these same Christian absolutists that their God is a benevolent one. Except if you are gay. Or if you resist complete authority. Or perhaps if you take your own life, like the Falling Man did, even if that choice is one of many that results in the same end - your death.
I reject that myopic mindset. But I believe the story of the Falling Man and who was thought to be his family lets us know that many don't.
The most interesting part about this secret and the wave of debate and commentary it sparked across the Internet is the large number of comments who thought that the secret sender (being me) is religious, which I can say unequivocally is far from the truth. Many other comments were flabbergasted that I wrote that the Falling Man "killed himself", implying that he intended to that morning before the chaos started. I still stand by my assertion that he indeed had a choice (in the true definition of the word, that of having options). But with my words I reject the notion of an evil, hateful God that would send a man to hell for escaping the hell on earth that was the North Tower on September 11th. And if God (if there really is one) would know why the Falling Man jumped, then he should certainly know that gay people can love each other as much as straight people, and that those who end their lives under the grasp of depression were not well and do not deserve whatsoever to be banished to the underworld.
That is why I wrote what I wrote.
Lastly, I sent the above secret to PostSecret on Monday (September 5th) of last week. But that is not the only secret I revealed that week. Only two days later on Wednesday night I revealed another secret that freed my heart and mind, only this one I did not submit online. To the person who heard that secret (you know who you are), I want to thank you for your grace and comfort with your response. The hour we spent talking after healed my mind and my heart, and I'm so grateful that we are even stronger friends than before. Namaste.