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The Great Fall: 9/11 and the new social contract that redefines state and society

A centenary away from WWI, Shrey Goyal looks back at 9/11’s iconic photograph that defined contemporary times’ Great War on terror, the unidentified dead in the war and society’s new collective reality of combat from which there seems to be no escape.

Shrey Goyal  13th Sep 2014

The Falling Man | Photo: Richard Drew

hope we're not trying to figure out who he is and figure out who we are through watching that.
Gwendolyn Briley-Strand (sister of Jonathan Briley), 9/11: The Falling Man.

Thirteen years ago, Associated Press photographer Richard Drew found himself clicking away at the site of the World Trade Center attacks. One of the resulting photographs, titled The Falling Man, shows a "jumper" escaping the fumes. The subject of the image is placed perfectly parallel to the columns of the late Towers, which, you may recall, descended almost vertically (an oft-cited fact by the "truther" breed of conspiracy theorists). Believed by many to be North Tower restaurant employee Jonathan Briley, the identity of the man has never been officially confirmed.

This photograph has seen thorough examination by social and cultural commentators worldwide, for there is something inherently discomforting about a man jumping from a skyscraper, even a burning one. Why did he jump? No matter what the situation in the building was, it's not as if the fall could have saved him. Hitting the curb at a terminal velocity of between 50 and 60 metres per second, probably head first, is certain to result in death, perhaps immediately. Which seems to answer the question: he was jumping for the comfort of an instant, possibly painless death.

He is not going towards something, but away from it. He is sprinting towards his bodily demise, about 54 metres closer with every passing second; sprinting towards freedom. This man may not even precisely know what has happened, let alone the modus operandi behind it. Nevertheless, he is not going to let it decide his fate. He is going to embrace his destiny, without letting someone else decide the moment and manner that he must die. He is not going to spend his last moments choking on concrete fumes. He'll breathe free, perhaps freer than he has ever done before, and in the small metaphorical window that he has, he is going to govern the terms of his death. It is not suicide, but rather the ultimate act of rebellion.

The attacks, immediately termed "9/11", would go on to redefine the relationship between state and society, even for people who, in another era, wouldn't even have seen the news of the incident.

9/11 marked the start of the global War on Terror, the Great War of our time. The attacks resulted in 2,996 immediate (attack time) deaths, including the 19 hijackers, and citizens of over 90 countries. Additionally, 1,140 responders and people in lower Manhattan at the time have since been diagnosed with cancer (whom the U.S. government famously denied healthcare benefits for a decade). 9/11 also led directly to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as well as additional homeland security spending, and was cited as a rationale for the Iraq war, although intelligence organisations and think tanks globally have failed to grasp the latter. 

He is not going to spend his last moments choking on concrete fumes. He’ll breathe free, perhaps freer than he has ever done before, and in the small metaphorical window that he has, he is going to govern the terms of his death. It is not suicide, but rather the ultimate act of rebellion.

he war in Afghanistan is estimated to have resulted in 3,466 "coalition deaths" and between 18,000 and 20,000 Afghan civilian casualties. As of 2010, there had been 16,623 Iraqi military and police deaths, and as per a 2008 estimate by ORB International, 946,000 to 1,120,000 civilian deaths ("48% died from a gunshot wound, 20% from the impact of a car bomb, 9% from aerial bombardment..."). I wouldn't blame you if you skimmed over the numbers, because that's all that they've become now. Another number to reflect upon is 5 trillion, a figure that the cost of these two wars surpassed in U.S. dollars a while ago, while we are still counting the number of dips in the global recession.

9/11 also heralded a U.S. government shift toward Israel's response to Palestinian terror, and it was a crucial step in Israel gaining American approval for military incursions in the West Bank in 2002. This legitimised further rounds of the Gaza war including the most recent one, which, as the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports, displaced 25% of the population, and killed a total 2,104 people in the Gaza Strip, including 1,462 civilians, which itself includes 495 children and 253 women.

A lot else has changed, and 9/11 has resulted in new attitudes and concerns about defence and vigilance worldwide. For the U.S., it brought along policies like the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" (USA PATRIOT Act for short), which prioritised national security at the expense of civil liberties.

This curtailment of rights extended beyond the American borders, and full body scans, frisking, and a general air of hostility became ubiquitous across public infrastructure worldwide. Racial and other forms of discrimination were similarly institutionalised as scaremongering took over most of the democratic world, and memories of cold war paranoia were revived.

This year also saw the centenary of the start of the original Great War, the WWI. Every major war since has seen its fair share of remembrance and commemoration, and some accompanying decoration and symbolism. In Britain, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was created at Westminster Abbey, in France La tombe du soldat inconnu was placed in the Arc de Triomphe, and we followed with an eternal flame burning next to a rifle capped by war helmet beneath the India Gate. The British Unknown Warrior even made it to the "100 Great Britons" list as per a 2002 poll. In all of these monuments, the anonymity of the entombed soldier is key, and represents everyone who fell in service of the nation.

Unlike previous global combats, our current great war has never been formally declared to be taking place between specific nations or armed units. It's a war that governments have in fact, been fighting against citizens, one in which we have all been drafted (or as my phone ironically auto-corrected, "dragged") as soldiers, non-consensually fighting it out as we try to live through it.

It's about time that we too started celebrating our soldiers, and identifying a symbol to mark the graves of the unidentified dead in the war. Let us build our monuments with a powerful image from our time. It could be called an image of despair, of freedom, or simply, of our newfound reality.

It was never Jonathan Briley in the photograph after all. It was us. The symbol of this war is not a fallen soldier, but a falling one.

Shrey Goyal is a global development professional and climate change geek, and runs the Sustainable Growth Initiative, Delhi.

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