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9/11 Cultural Insensitivity 101

I’m not sure which is worse: one of Britain’s largest newspapers sending a culturally insensitive diminutive to cover a highly emotional story, or the fact that the publisher and editors of said newsrag believed the story had merit in the first place.

Let me be perfectly clear upfront. Both as a writer and someone who was working in combatting terrorism in the very part of the Pentagon destroyed when the airplane hit the building as part of a coordinated terrorist attack on America on September 11th, 2001, I did not awaken this morning with intentions of writing about that day.

I certainly have never planned on writing about extremely personal memories about the events of September 11th and its aftermath in this venue, my expat blog. The closest I’ve ever come was in the post Let the (Re)Building Begin on the day earlier this year when Osama Bin Ladin was found and killed.

I believe there is a time and a place for everything. I have been exceedingly cautious in my respect for those killed, their loved ones and indeed the cultural and historical significance of this date.

It has taken me nine and a half years to even begin to put pen to paper about that those events; it will take considerably more time to be able to write more fully on this subject.

But I have never, ever lost sight of the very truth that my story, as a survivor, pales in comparison to the tragedy that befell so many, many others.

I am well aware of the looming 10th anniversary, and I intended to spend that day in quiet contemplation and prayer, as I have each year since that fateful day. I still intend to do so.

But right now I am angry. Not as furious as I was several hours ago, but steamed nonetheless. I went for a long walk, took 372 deep breaths, and now I am going to channel that simmering anger into something productive.

I have had time to digest all of this, and I’ve decided that I will indeed address the pathetic excuse for journalism perpetrated by David James Smith and The Sunday Times Culture Section in their highly insensitive, sensationalistic and culturally inaccurate article ‘Remember the Fallen: And They Leapt Into The Abyss’.

[I read the article because we happen to buy The Sunday Times; I cannot provide a link as you must pay for that privilege. However, you can go to their website if you are so inclined.

Update: A similar article was carried by The Daily Mail online, entitled 9/11 Jumpers: America Wants to Forget Victims Who Fell From the Twin Towers. It’s similar (but not exactly the same) as the original article. Please notice that there is no ‘proof’ offered to substantiate the claim in the title. Only the sensationalistic angle, with no evidence to back it up.]

That’s right. They sent a reporter to the United States to inquire about those victims on September 11th who may have chosen to jump to their deaths before the Twin Towers collapsed, and they went with a title like that.

Is it any wonder that one widow told him his interest was ‘disgusting’?

As an expat I often speak of and write about the need for understanding and sensitivity when addressing the myriad ways various cultures operate and interact. So consider this my contribution to cultural anthropology by addressing the cultural misunderstandings that Mr. Smith so clearly missed, and what he and the so-called brain trust at The Sunday Times should have told their readership if they still felt hellbent on publishing a piece so utterly lacking in journalistic value.

The supposed investigative slant of the story was to determine why Americans are so adverse to talking about the fact that some in that horrendous situation in New York City opted to commit suicide.

Here are a few snippets:

‘Their last moments were watched around the world. Yet the subject of the 9/11 ‘jumpers’ has proved so painful and unsettling that, a decade on, few in American are willing to mention them. Why have they been erased from history?’

and this charmer:

‘Like a dirty or embarrassing secret, the people who jumped or fell…’ The article goes on to quote in excruciating detail the sights and sounds that emergency responders and others on the ground encountered.

So let me spell it out as clearly and succinctly as I can. I speak only for myself, but I would venture that many Americans likely agree with what I am going to write.

In the article, much was made of the fact that the chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Hirsch, maintained there were no ‘jumpers’ per se: he asserted that all were victims of homicide, and the physical cause of death on death certificates cited as blunt trauma.

That is the truth. If you believe it is only the truth in America, rest assured it is not a political truth. It is a cultural one, and it is not based on denial.

Despite being told that this was done out of sensitivity for the bereaved families (is that truly so hard to fathom?), the voyeuristic Smith maintains that he knows ‘there are some people who take comfort from the idea that their lost partner or relative chose to jump and so actively took charge of the manner of their dying.’

That may well be true. But here’s a news flash: they don’t necessarily want to read about it in the news or be asked by intrusive journalists, nor do they wish to foist it upon other families who may or may not wish to discuss the final minutes of their loved ones.

Not because it is dirty or embarrassing or shameful, because it isn’t.

Because it’s private; it is their loved one’s death, theirs to grieve and mourn, and as a culture we respect that.

Nor, as Smith argues, am I as an American adverse to speaking about the supposed suicides of September 11th because of religious conventions. While it is true that most religions practiced in the US, and the world for that matter, caution against the taking of one’s life on the basis of considering it an act of destruction of life believed only to be the purview of God, many religious denominations also have a significant amount of compassion for those who would choose to do so.

I recognize that suicide is the act of someone in pain and extreme emotional upheaval. There is no room for moral condemnation; there is only room for compassion and empathy, two traits sorely lacking in The Sunday Times article.

That said, I happen to fervently believe (and feel that as a culture many Americans feel similarly) that choosing to hasten the end of one’s life in the face of an imminent death caused by the actions of others is NOT suicide.

It does not matter whether those tortured souls chose to leap to their deaths due to physiological reaction to the billowing smoke and searing heat of the raging fires (‘flight’ instinct, if you will), a sense of last-minute empowerment over the horrific situation in which they found themselves (‘this will be on my terms, not the perpetrators’), or a grace-laden acceptance of death and embrace of God’s will following the physical end of one’s life.

They did not commit suicide. Absolutely. Did. Not. I am very clear on that.

I have no sense of ‘denial’ in this, none whatsoever. They simply were not suicides. To categorize them as such shows an abhorent lack of cultural sensitivity for the manner in which they died: at the hands of terrorists bent on killing as many as possible. It is not about the stigma of suicide that Smith so eagerly sniffs out.

They were murdered as clearly as those who died on impact when the planes hit the buildings or the ground in Pennsylvania, or those felled by the ensuing fireballs or choking, acrid smoke.

They are not forgotten, nor erased from history. They are every bit a part of the emotional and historical fabric that has been woven about 9/11, tiny strands included in the larger tapestry of horror, pain, anguish, steely determination, resolve and ultimately resurgence.

As a culture, we do not speak of these final actions for one reason, and one reason only: we believe it is culturally insensitive and therefore unthinkable to show or discuss people in the act of dying.

We avert our eyes and still our tongues not because we are immature or squeamish, but because we culturally consider it the utmost respect to allow someone the privacy of their grief. Collectively as a nation we embrace that concept.

This is an important point totally lost on Smith, as he cites conversations with some New York firefighters a year after September 11th. What they may have told him, face-to-face, is not something that they would have shouted out in lurid detail in a story such as Smith’s.

Those firefighters and emergency responders suffered grievous losses and know enough not to add to other families’ sorrows by discussing the intimate details of the demise of their loved ones. That includes those victims in the airplanes, in the buildings and on the ground, not only those who may have chosen to jump or who fell to their deaths.

It doesn’t take an investigative reporter to understand why there is precious little footage of the bodies landing. It may well exist, but if it does it certainly hasn’t been shared ad nauseum with the American public.

Similarly, there are no piles of news articles going into great depth about the distressing sounds survivors in the immediate area heard. We may know of it, but we are not and have not been bombarded with it.

Did journalists fulfill their duties in documenting that some people died in this manner? Yes.

Was there any ‘hiding’ of this information for any reason (shame, embarrassment, religious concerns, conspiracy theory)? Unequivocally NO.

As one firefighter on the scene that day explained so eloquently in the article, ‘I felt like I was intruding on a sacrament. They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn’t have been…’

She and her partner turned away and faced a wall. I’m sure they were traumatised by what they were observing, but she turned away because she was showing respect, giving the victims the privacy they deserved.

To write about or discuss these developments outside of an exceedingly private conversation as was likely the case with the aforementioned firefighters (and, I suspect, with many a therapist in the intervening months and years) is to revisit cruel and unnecessary grief upon the families and friends of those who died in the World Trade Center buildings.

Another woman, whose brother was killed, said it best in Smith’s article: ‘They were falling into the arms of God, they really were’.

I cannot for the life of me imagine why this article was pitched, approved, investigated, written and published. And yet it was.

What is its redeeming value?

Are you telling me Smith et al will be proud many years from now to tell their progeny that on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11th, they chose to write and publish this article?

Really?

Truly?

Well obviously so, as the deed is done.

I can only think to paraphrase that American literary great, Dorothy Parker:

‘You can lead a media whore to culture, but you can’t make him think’.

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