Saturday, September 11, 2010
Nine-Eleven. Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010.
"All of a sudden there were people screaming. I saw people jumping out of the building. Their arms were flailing. I stopped taking pictures and started crying." – Michael Walters, a freelance photo journalist in Manhattan
This photo shows the image I still have in my mind when I think of Manhattan’s skyline. A New York without the Twin Towers still seems unreal, nine years later.
Today, Sept. 11, 2001 seems like the beginning of my nation’s decline. As a result of this cowardly act, in which thousands died, America got tangled up in two wars that would go a long way toward bankrupting our nation and destroying the world’s respect for us. Our rights as citizens would be curtailed, and the majority’s tolerance for minorities, especially religious minorities, would evaporate. In some ways, sad to say, the terrorists “won.”
There are many haunting images from that day, but perhaps the worst are those of the people who had jumped from the building, falling to the ground below. Dozens of those who died that day were killed in this way. Try to imagine what went on in their minds in the moments before they leapt – as flames descended upon them, they had to choose whether they preferred to burn to death or smash into the pavement.
No one referred to these deaths as suicides – although, technically, they were. But these victims faced certain and immediate death either way. As a suicide attempt survivor, I cannot pretend to have the slightest idea what it would be like to have to decide whether or not to jump or burn; but I do understand what it’s like to believe that death is my only choice.
I don’t think anyone who attempts suicide believes they are making a “choice.” They believe that living is impossible because they believe that it is impossible to live without pain, and it’s the pain that they want to stop. In fact, it’s not so much death that they seek, but an end to pain. The phrase “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” rings false, because they believe their pain will be eternal. So the “choice” they face is constant, lifelong pain – a sort of living death – or a final death.
In that way, people who attempt to end their lives are not so terribly different from the people who leaped from the World Trade Center. They faced an intolerable choice, and they wanted their pain to end quickly.
Objectively, of course, we know that their situations are different. The pain of someone who is clinically depressed or in a terrible situation might come to an end in a non-lethal way. They might be able to undergo treatment, or they might be able to find a way to change their lives, and six months or two years or a decade later, they might look back and be very thankful they did not die. The 9-11 victims would never have had that opportunity.
But from the vantage point of someone whose life feels, at that moment, like a living death, the question of fire versus pavement might seem eerily familiar.