Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack to ever take place on American soil. Muslim fundamentalists became terrorists and planes became missiles, filling the skies with terror and carnage that would forever change the course of history for the entire world. While the death and destruction from that day is an immutable memory seared in our heads, we should remember that there was more to those incidents than the havoc and devastation that dominated our screens. On that day, twenty years ago, courage and heroism were in abundance across the gamut of attacks that took place, and, while some of that courage has been documented and acknowledged, other examples have been mostly overlooked, or the courageous aspect of the deed ignored. Next week, while a splurge of articles and media reports will no doubt fill our synapses with memories of that history-changing day, I want to take a moment to talk about the courage of 9/11.
Courage is defined as action in the face of fear. There are many people who think that they aren’t courageous simply because they’re scared, but courage actually requires fear. Courage is being scared but acting anyway. Fighting your base instinct to take no action, or to remove yourself from the action that is necessary, wanting to turn back, to run, to hide, but moving forward regardless. Not everyone is capable of courage. There are many who freeze with fear, paralyzed by the magnitude of the event or the decision. When people push through that paralysis and act, we marvel at that action, and we acknowledge it. Not all courage is equal, and not all that we call courageous is actually courage. Too often that term is thrown around in situations where it doesn’t apply, diminishing the word and weakening the actions of those who truly earned that brand. The courage on display on 9/11 was pure and it was undeniable, though not all of it resulted in good. I think it’s important to recognize the courage both pure and impure, both heroic and anti-heroic, on that day, for reasons that I hope will be clear.
We’ve all discussed and acknowledged the courage of the first responders—the police officers, firefighters, and others who ran toward the towers that day. The shock of seeing a jumbo jet slam into a skyscraper that before this day had seemed indomitable, an everlasting symbol of not just our nation, but the entire world of capitalism and finance, could have, should have, and, in many cases probably did cause many to freeze, to stand in shock, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, their bodies immobile with gut-wrenching fear. When the second plane, United Airlines flight 175, crashed into the south tower, the majority of us were watching from home, safely in our living rooms while the scenario played out on our televisions. It was shocking even from there. From the ground, the ear-splitting scream of the turbofan engines as the hijackers shoved them to full throttle, the gut-wrenching explosion above your head which would have rained glass, steel, concrete, and debris across the entire World Trade Center complex, the smell of jet fuel permeating the air, the shaking of the very ground you stood on, and the visceral screams of all those around you, the stumbling, shell-shocked walking wounded with blood pouring from them, the thumps as bodies splashed onto the ground around you, and the knowledge—no longer in any doubt—that this was not an accident, that this was intentional, an attack on America, and that your country, your city, the very patch of concrete that you stood on right now was ground zero of a warzone…this could have and should have been immobilizing.
And still, they ran into the buildings. Toward the fire and the screams and the carnage. This is courage.
There was much more courage on display than just the rescuers who ran into the doomed buildings. When the planes smashed into the towers, the twisted metal and blazing flames blocked off all access points to escape routes for the majority of those trapped on the floors above the wreckage. They had nowhere to go, imprisoned in their offices as smoke and heat rose to greet them. So many of them made heart-wrenching calls to loved ones. Calls to tell their families that they were trapped and they didn’t know if they would be able to escape. In so many of these calls, the speaker is calm and collected, saying goodbye in their own unique way, their voices shaky but confident as they leave messages of love. The courage to overcome the near panic of being trapped to be able to leave a message of hope and love, and to say goodbye in a calm voice should not be overlooked.
On the floors below those leaving messages for their loved ones, the floors that were just above or just below the wreckage of the planes, things were much more desperate. The heat and smoke and noxious fumes of burning steel and debris were overpowering. Fear exploded in these helpless beings as they broke windows and hung themselves out over the void, grasping to ledges for dear life as they prayed and shouted for rescue to the responders who were tiny dots a thousand feet below them. Rescue was impossible, and the situation for these poor souls was unimaginable. Many of them took an extraordinary step to escape the inferno.
This picture is known as The Falling Man. It’s an everlasting image that was captured by photographer Richard Drew of the Associated Press, and it probably should have won him a Pulitzer. Instead, it won him scorn and derision. It represents, without words, so much of the fear and devastation of that day. This is a jumper. One of approximately 200 people who chose to jump to their deaths from the hellscape in which they were trapped. The decision to loose yourself from the burning building and plummet for 10 to 15 seconds to a certain death on the pavement 1000 feet below is hard to imagine. It’s a decision that takes incredible courage.
If you’ve never seen this picture of the falling man, there’s a simple explanation. Many news agencies refused to show it. Many showed it once and received such backlash from citizen complaints that they never showed it again. There’s a good chance that something in you recoiled from looking at it here. And there’s a simple explanation for that.
It shows a man committing suicide, and our society shuns that stigma as morally wrong.
It doesn’t matter that this man was doomed to die in one of the most painful ways imaginable. It doesn’t matter that there was no escape for him, that he was hanging by a thread with flames licking at his body when he gave up. We can not acknowledge his decision because in so many of our minds, he made the wrong decision. He jumped. He committed suicide, and we can’t accept that.
I’m here to tell you, not only do I accept it, I consider this an act of extreme courage.
When Peter Cheney, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, set out to determine the identity of The Falling Man, he started with his clothing. It was the clothing of a chef, he realized, and that led him to the famous north tower restaurant, Windows on the World. By tracking down all of the employees who were present that day and those who’s bodies were identified, along with the locations of their remains, he was able to figure out that there was a very distinct likelihood that The Falling Man was Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at Windows on the World. When he contacted Hernandez’s family to show them his evidence that he may have identified their loved one, he was met with incredible backlash. Hernandez’s daughter went so far as to make a statement, saying,
“That piece of shit is not my father.”
That piece of shit. The family of one of the victims of the World Trade Center attack was so fearful of the stigma of suicide that they could not bear the idea that this jumper may have been their loved one. There was no way that their Norberto would have jumped to his death. Only a “piece of shit” would choose his own death in that way.
Such is the stigma of this action in our society that the medical examiner responsible for identifying the bodies didn’t even refer to them as “jumpers.” The picture is titled The “Falling” Man, not The Jumper. On the official report of the deaths of 9/11, the 200 jumpers are referred to as “fallers.” No doubt this is partially accurate. Unquestionably with all of the people hanging from the broken windows, many of them precariously leaning with most of their body over the gulf, some accidentally fell. There’s also no doubt though, that many of them jumped. And I think those jumpers showed enormous courage.
There is courage in making any tough decision in the face of fear, particularly a decision that guarantees your death. Humans have a strong desire to live, and none of the 200 from that day thought they might have a chance at life by jumping or falling. There was no doubt that they were making a decision that was going to be their last. It is so tough to imagine the hell on Earth that they were experiencing in that tower that made jumping a better option than staying. There was no way for them to know if rescue was coming, or if the fire suppression system would somehow kick on, or if the wind would shift and push the flames away from them. And yet, they knew that none of those things were likely, and that staying meant a continuation of the incredible pain and suffering as the devastating inferno raged through their former offices. And so, they jumped. Or let go. And by doing so, they chose 10 seconds of cool, rushing air, followed by a painless eternal blackness. The fear of jumping had to be overwhelming, and yet they made that decision, and I think that makes them incredibly courageous. I can not fathom calling them cowards, or “pieces of shit” for that choice. Yet, our society is such a moral backwater that this is what we do.
When Mohamed Atta, the hijacker piloting American Flight 11, banked that 767 onto the collision course with the North Tower and then jammed the throttles forward as the building loomed and his own death became certain, he still had a choice. He could have veered off the collision course at any time. He could have changed his mind and decided that what he’d agreed to do, what he’d trained to do was madness. There’s no doubt that his heart was racing. There’s no doubt that he was terrified as he and his copilot confronted their own deaths. The hijackers of the second plane, United Flight 175, had a great view of the smoking hole that used to be their friends and co-conspirators. They saw first-hand what happened to their comrades and they still turned their own jet inbound and powered into the skyscraper. It’s one thing to imagine your own glorious demise. It’s quite another to see exactly what will happen to you and to still proceed. There’s no doubt that following through with the slamming of those two jumbo jets into the two towers and the one into the side of the Pentagon took prodigious amounts of courage.
The hijackers deserve our scorn and derision of course. They were homicidal terrorists who murdered thousands. But we can both disparage them and, at the same time, acknowledge that what they did took incredible courage. In fact, we need to acknowledge their courage in order to ascertain what it was that gave them such courage. What was it that allowed these men to turn those jets onto a collision course with concrete and steel, push the throttles forward to their stops, and immolate themselves into the fire of oblivion? When we acknowledge that these actions took true and pure courage, we can begin to figure out where that courage came from, and we can try to take steps to ensure that this type of courage, this homicidal courage that is indoctrinated into these men doesn’t happen again.
What is it that causes men to become radicalized suicide (or homicide) bombers? Is it the same courage that causes a soldier to jump on a grenade, or is it something different? When a soldier jumps on a grenade, he’s committing suicide, there’s no doubt about it. Even when he somehow lives, his actions were still suicidal. And yet, we call him hero. We award him with our highest honors and medals. We do this in spite of the fact that he committed suicide, and we don’t call it suicide, even though it very clearly is. We do this because his suicidal action was done with the intent of saving others. When a man straps on a suicide vest and blows himself to smithereens in a crowded market, we call him coward. We call him a murderer and a terrorist. The act though, is the same. In both cases the men are making the decision to blow themselves up. So shouldn’t we acknowledge that both actions require the same level of courage? In fact, can’t we posit that the suicide bomber, who has all day to think about his decision and the consequences of his decision and still goes through with it may be even more courageous than the soldier who jumps on a grenade and may not have even considered the consequences of his actions? Some of the survivors of such actions have said that they, “didn’t even think, they just acted.” This shows that these types of actions may not involve courage at all. They may actually just be indicative of an inability to think through the consequences of your actions, something we despise in everyday life.
Once we acknowledge the courage of the 9/11 hijackers, then we can figure out the source of that courage. We can track that courage back to one basic concept. The same source that gives suicide bombers their courage. The courage of both comes from exactly one source: religion. The type of religious courage that can only arise from the surety that your place at God’s side is secure, that the action you’re taking, this homicidal maelstrom that you’re unleashing is exactly what will secure you the grace of your God. It’s this kind of religious zealotry that has caused more pain and suffering in the history of humanity than any other source. From paganism and polytheism and their human sacrifices, to the Crusades of Christianity and their witch hunts and heretic burnings, to the terrorism of Muslim fundamentalists with their suicide murderers, extreme religious beliefs have caused incalculable death and anguish throughout time. Religious certainty leaves no room for opposition, it elevates its believers to the status of the pious and the righteous, and it excuses literally any act that can be justified as furtherance of God’s will. The 19 hijackers that day showed astounding courage, and that courage was born of religious fervor and righteous certainty, and that is something we should all be striving to vanquish from our society.
The first responders, the trapped, the jumpers, the passengers on the flights who called authorities in defiance of their hijackers to report the hijackings, and those on United flight 93 who attempted to take back their airplane, causing it to crash into a field in Pennsylvania instead of its intended target in Washington D.C., and, yes, even the hijackers of those four flights all showed incredible courage that day. Some of the courage was admirable. Some of it was despicable. All of it was unquestionable. The courage of 9/11 presented itself in many different aspects, and, as we look back to that fateful day twenty years ago, we can both admire and learn from all who showed it that day.
*Cover photo credit Seth McAllister/AFB