On Monday, I stumbled across a long-forgotten image, innocuously laced within a reading assignment. The moment of recognition took, somehow, a perceptible instant, as if a reluctant realignment had first to take place; as if the photograph needed to announce its presence — to mold itself to the quotidian moment — before it could emerge, visible and decipherable. My screen found itself filled with the picture of “The Falling Man”: the horrifically tranquil 9/11 photograph — of a man plunging, headfirst, from the World Trade Center’s north tower — that, in the day’s aftermath, had been all but shouted out of existence. But here it had survived — the photo, the feeling — even years after that day. The man tumbled — framed by the dark, synthetic verticals of soon-to-fall spires — on that day. A blink later, the recognition echoed outward, icy, reverberant, devastatingly simple: “That happened.”
I think we all, occasionally, experience a similarly visceral hollowing, sparked by a word, a photograph, an extant slice of that day, left bare and unadorned, even through the fanfare and chaos of recovery. There they are: the thousands — the one man — gone. That day, which, all too quickly, sank below the surface, and — still surging — lives on as a great undercurrent, propelling every epiphenomenon, every national narrative, shuddering and casting off the bric-a-brac with which we orient ourselves.
It is this bric-a-brac — this world of conclusions and consequences — that now defines our day-to-day understanding of the tragedy. We pinned that moment to a discrete space and time. Though we stoically and unflinchingly bear its heavy “influence,” as we march resolutely forward, the moment itself has been lost to us. It flickered in a wordless horror — in silent faces on Broadway, staring skyward — and then in an instant left us in darkness, clinging to conjectures and rationalizations: words, like flags on coffins, that we so desperately needed in order to continue living and dying with some vestige of normalcy.
But once in a while, the wave crests. Not during the term paper, in which that day is used to buttress a thesis; not during the politician’s speech, rhetoric cloaking, polishing, buffing it clean; not during the dorm-room debate, when the falling men and towers are trotted out to make a point. That day comes to us more through refraction than reflection. Not in remembrance, but reckoning. (After all, how could we ever forget?)
It is the darkest, most disorienting of confrontations, precisely because it cannot be categorized, contextualized or explained. And if we cannot come to face the primal blackness of that day, how can we explain the worlds, words and wars that flowed from it?
That day’s death toll was not as high as Haiti’s. Yet, here, our utilitarian calculus finds itself valueless — offensive even. I cared — care — far more about that day than this recent tragedy. That day remains, colder and more incomprehensible than all others, thanks to one, awful realization: They were us. They took the 6 train downtown. They watched the VMAs. They filed their tax returns. They spoke American English, used cell phones, heard Bruce Springsteen on the radio, thumbed through magazine subscriptions, stood for the national anthem, divided the check at restaurants, lived in, with and among us. Then they were murdered.
For this, there can be no courts and doctrines. For planes smashing through towers, for infernos in corner offices and pizza parlors, for box-cutters, for Spanish trains, British trains and 186 children dead in Beslan, there can be no justice — there is only revenge. A broken spirit and a clenched fist — chained in flags, maxims and ticker-tape — still silently roaring, beating itself raw against the bars of its cage. We have all been irrevocably altered, twisted at our core, in more personal and intimate dimensions than is ever immediately perceptible. Sometimes, all it takes to feel the tattered strings strain is such a photograph. A moment in time, caught in that day’s long, dark shadow.
I intentionally write this on an insignificant day — not for an anniversary, not in response to a headline or a point. These should be left to the falsely recovered. For now, for us, it is enough to say, to feel.
Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.