Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 2002.08.13
Suicide on 9/11

Censored Statue
of a Falling Woman

<disclaimer> This page has generated some emotional responses so I must lead with this disclaimer. I certainly mean no disrespect to the families and victims of 9/11. Also, I of course cannot know any of the following. It is just my belief of what went on. </disclaimer>

[ The picture to the right is of "Tumbling Woman," a statue in Rockefeller Center done by Eric Fischl to commemorate those who on 9/11 jumped or fell to their deaths from the World Trade Center. It was censored on 9/18/2002 because of complaints that it was too disturbing. ]

On the way into work I almost always listen to WBUR, a great NPR station in Boston to which I contribute. After "Morning Addition" they do an hour of the BBC which I love since they actually do world news. What a concept. After the BBC comes the Connection, an excellent news/interview/call-in syndicated program produced by WBUR.

The other day I was coming into work very late after staying up to 0300 repairing my home network which was turned off by my provider for no good reason -- the subject of a [near] future rant. I was listening to Fresh Air which is a pretty good NPR interview program. The subject that day was a book by a Catholic priest named James Martin entitled Searching for God at Ground Zero. Sounded interesting. The thing that caught my ear and which is the subject of this rant happened around 20 minutes into the program:

Interviewer: I think that one of the most wrenching realities of the attacks was the fact that many people jumped from the burning skyscrapers to their deaths. And many people saw the images of that on television. Some witnessed it in person. Did you find that people grappled with this and asked you whether what these people did was suicide?

Martin: People frequently asked me about those incidents of people jumping. I had an EMS woman come up to me once, I remember very vividly, and said to me. "Did those people who jumped from the building commit suicide?" And I remember that I was with two other Jesuit friends of mine, we were working there together that day. And I just remember looking at this woman and thinking well of course not. There's no way that that can be considered suicide. And I paused for a minute trying to figure out a way of expressing that. And this friend of mine, who was named Chris, just said "No they were trying to save their lives". And I remember thinking that was a beautiful response and very meaningful to her. She cried and we all cried a little bit.

I mean it made sense, these were people who if you had given them the option, these poor people trapped in the burning buildings would have chosen life.

For some reason this offends my sensibilities and I strongly disagree with it. Ignoring for a second the religious connotations of the act, let's look at the definition of the word suicide. The DICT online dictionary says:

The act of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally; ...; the deliberate and intentional destruction of one's own life by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

As I see it:

For these people who made the decision, they took their own lives, at least partially voluntarily, and intentionally. At the very least the people chose how they were going to die. They made it happen sooner with less suffering and pain. Who is going to blame them them for this? Certainly not me. I would have done the same if I were they. They were making a choice between being burned alive, suffocating from smoke inhalation, or dying in a blink of a instant at the bottom of the fall. It is definitely terrible that they were forced into having to make that choice but they made it. They took the last measure of control over their own lives and did something.

I think we should be questioning not what they did but why we have a problem with it. Why is it so awful that they participated in their own death? Why do we need to sugar coat it? Why should we confuse their last choices and intentions? These were normal people like you and I put in an impossible situation with no way out. It was a terrible, terrible day and I believe strongly that we should remember it with absolute clarity. Anything that hides the realities will come back to hurt us later.

Another reason why this is a complex issue is that for many, ending your life with suicide means that you will go to hell. I just don't understand the view that if some saint of a man, who lives 99.9% of his life well, decides at the last to kill himself because he can't stand some physical or emotional trama in his life, he's punished for the rest of eternity? Not that I believe in the afterlife but these opinions really piss me off. This man would choose life if the trama was removed just as much as the 9/11 jumpers would. I think that people deep in depression would choose it as well if the chemicals disturbing their neurotransmitters were suppressed or removed.

A long and wicked life followed by five minutes of perfect grace gets you into Heaven. An equally long life of decent living and good works followed by one outburst of taking the name of the Lord in vain-then have a heart attack at that moment and be damned for eternity. Is that the system? -- Robert A. Heinlein

The point is not for us to be comfortable about the topic. We shouldn't sugar coat what was a horrific and deeply disturbing day. For the people who were personally touched by 9/11, I am sure that they do not want to dwell on the day -- I wouldn't. But for the rest of us, I think it is important to remember the pain, the helplessness, and the sadness -- with complete clarity. Not in any sadistic way but rather so we learn and grow from the experience.

I just found an excellent article entitled A Death Better Than Fate's from the Washington Post written on 9/13/2001.

"In a way, it was a healthy response," says Ronald Maris, a forensic suicide expert and director of the Center for the Study of Suicide at the University of South Carolina. "It is taking charge of a situation rather than letting the situation take charge of you. The primary motive of all suicides is escape. What are they fleeing from? In this case, they have escaped from terrible thoughts of being crushed to death, or burned to death, by annihilating their consciousness in a way that is nearly instantaneous."

In the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City, more than 50 people jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor. The year before, nearly 20 people leaped from a burning tenement in Newark, N.J. In each case, some people survived, or survived long enough, to explain why they had chosen the window. Several said it was to make sure their bodies would be identified, and not incinerated beyond recognition.

"It's an issue of control," says Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "All people want to have some control over their lives, and that includes the nature and timing of their deaths. The notion of having death happen to you is less viable than being in charge of it."

Well said.

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