The Falling Man | ‘It is finished’

FallingLast night Channel 4 showed a documentary (based on the Esquire article by Tom Junod) about Richard Drew’s horrific photograph from 9/11, which became known as ‘the falling man.’ Released and used by some in the press in the immediate reports, it then ‘sank without trace’ soon after in an act of seeming self-censorship.

The documentary was a moving and challenging exploration of the history and impact of the photograph. While coroners and others appeared to be trying to revise history and deny that anyone had jumped from the towers, the programme proposed that the image ought to stand as a defining image of the absolute horror of the attacks.

Among the interviews of relatives of those who had died was one with a man who knew his wife had jumped. “After the suffocating smoke, the intense heat and lack of air, to jump must have felt like blessed relief. She would have felt like she was flying.” Others didn’t agree. The jumpers had ‘committed suicide’, and thus condemned themselves to hell. They had somehow been cowardly, not thinking of their loved ones.

Personally, I was deeply moved by the horror of the decision these people were forced to take. In one sense, this became for me a meditation on violence and technology (which I have posted on before here). In the face of an act of horrific violence, with a huge jumbo-jet slamming into a structure that had lifted people 107 stories into the air, with the smoke and heat of aviation fuel, pinned in place by broken lift-shafts and burning stairwells, these people had to chose to whether to stay and face certain death after some unknowable wait among hot steel and choking flames, or let go and chose their own exit.

Perhaps they jumped out of sheer terror. We cannot know. But the ‘falling man’ image, with its almost serene and calm descent, offers us the possibility that it was as a brave act of self-determination that these people stepped out into the peace of clear air, away from the terror and technology that had rounded on them. That rather than be killed by those who brought suggest terrible weapons against them, they denied the terrorists’ desire to kill, and chose to take their own lives.

And thus we are turned to reflect on the other falling man, pinned in place by a terrible and crude technology, who chose to let go, defied our violence against him, opened his hands and exerted this great act of sacrificial self-determination. “It is finished,” he announced, choosing his own moment to descend into hell, “And breathed his last.”

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7 responses to “The Falling Man | ‘It is finished’”

  1. unfortunately didn’t see the program – but I imagine it will come round again on one of the E4 channels…
    I particularly like your reading of Jesus’ words ‘it is finished’. Against the idea of them being a ‘brave act of self-determination’ rather than Jesus being defeated by the pain and agony placed upon his body. Choosing death even in those final moments rather than succumbing to it.

  2. What a beautiful and moving reflection, thank you Kester.

  3. I think at least some people who have their faculties and are dying from “natural causes” choose the moment of their death. My mother died of heart failure in November 2003 in Arizona. My sister and I live in California. I saw my mom for the last time a week before she went to hospital, and my sister saw her for the last time three days before she died. We all knew she was dying and probably had no more than a couple of weeks left; my sister and I hoped that the medical staff would alert us and we would have time to get back there and be with her when she passed. It was not to be- I think she decided that since she had just seen us, and she knew the end was near, she was simply ready and released herself to God. I’ve heard of other people doing similar things. I don’t think that’s too far removed from the falling man.

  4. I emailed some with Junod after the piece first ran. He was struck by how verboten it was to even discuss this.

  5. Interesting connect Dana – and I’d agree. What worries me is that the medical establishment, and perhaps my relatives, might not. People talk about living forever; it scares the crap out of me to think that I might be kept alive artificially, with no control left over my endings or new beginnings. I’m not pro-euthanasia as such, but I do think self determination in the face of death is a powerful thing.
    Bob – that’s fascinating. Be interested to hear what he had to say…

  6. The Falling Man

    On the Complex Christ blog, a Holy Week meditation on one of the most moving images of our time: The Complex Christ: The Falling Man | ‘It is finished’.

  7. I am struck by how much this image is like the Tarot Trump card titled the “Hanged Man”. “We “control” by letting go – we “win” by surrendering”.