Last week, I read an article from 2003 that blew a hole in my ability to think things through:
The missing posters were still everywhere, but Cheney was able to focus on one that seemed to present itself to him – a poster portraying a man who worked at Windows as a pastry chef, who was dressed in a white tunic, who wore a goatee, who was Latino. His name was Norberto Hernandez. He lived in Queens. Cheney took the enhanced print of the Richard Drew photograph to the family, in particular to Norberto Hernandez’s brother Tino and sister Milagros. They said yes, that was Norberto. Milagros had watched footage of the people jumping on that terrible morning, before the television stations stopped showing it. She had seen one of the jumpers distinguished by the grace of his fall – by his resemblance to an Olympic diver – and surmised that he had to be her brother. Now she saw, and she knew. All that remained was for Peter Cheney to confirm the identification with Norberto’s wife and his three daughters. They did not want to talk to him, especially after Norberto’s remains were found and identified by the stamp of his DNA – a torso, an arm. So he went to the funeral. He brought his print of Drew’s photograph with him and showed it to Jacqueline Hernandez, the oldest of Norberto’s three daughters. She looked briefly at the picture, then at Cheney, and ordered him to leave.
What Cheney remembers her saying, in her anger, in her offended grief: “That piece of shit is not my father.”
I read and reread this, sure I’d missed words or whole phrases. And this:
And yet if one calls the New York Medical Examiner’s Office to learn its own estimate of how many people might have jumped, one does not get an answer but an admonition: “We don’t like to say they jumped. They didn’t jump. Nobody jumped. They were forced out, or blown out.” And if one Googles the words “how many jumped on 9/11,” one falls into some blogger’s trap, slugged “Go Away, No Jumpers Here,” where the bait is one’s own need to know: “I’ve got at least three entries in my referrer logs that show someone is doing a search on Google for ‘how many people jumped from WTC.’ My September 11 post had made mention of that terrible occurance [sic], so now any pervert looking for that will get my site’s URL. I’m disgusted. I tried, but cannot find any reason someone would want to know something like that…. Whatever. If that’s why you’re here – you’re busted. Now go away.”
When she sees the twelve-frame sequence, she lets out a gasping, muted call for her mother, but Eulogia is already over her shoulder, reaching for the pictures. She looks at them one after another, and then her face fixes itself into an expression of triumph and scorn. “That is not my husband,” she says, handing the photographs back. “You see? Only I know Norberto.” She reaches for the photographs again, and then, after studying them, shakes her head with a vehement finality. “The man in this picture is a black man.” She asks for copies of the pictures so that she can show them to the people who believed that Norberto jumped out a window, while Catherine sits on the step with her palm spread over her heart. “They said my father was going to hell because he jumped,” she says. “On the Internet. They said my father was taken to hell with the devil. I don’t know what I would have done if it was him. I would have had a nervous breakdown, I guess. They would have found me in a mental ward somewhere….”
Her mother is standing at the front door, about to go back inside her house. Her face has already lost its belligerent pride and has turned once again into a mask of composed, almost wistful sadness. “Please,” she says as she closes the door in a stain of morning sunlight. “Please clear my husband’s name.”
Feelings are facts. That people feel ashamed their loved ones or fellow human beings might have jumped out of a burning building was a totally new idea for me. I stopped every stupid thing I was doing to think it over.
For me, this seems simple. Given a situation in which there’s a blast furnace at my back and a 100 story drop before me, I’d take the plunge. No rescue was coming. Death was imminent and certainly awful. There was no easy way out in which those who died and we who bore witness all went home with pure hearts. These people were murdered, every last one of them.
But what about this shame thing? Some religions teach that suicide is a big no-no, but what does that mean? The building you’re in goes up in flames and you dutifully roast? And if you don’t, you roast forever? I was not raised in a religious environment; in fact, I was raised by people who taught me not to lie, but if a crazy person with a gun told me his name was George Washington, I should address him as “Mr. President.” So I laid this article out for a practicing Catholic and asked about this shame thing. She found it puzzling, too. “I don’t think anyone was committing suicide. The only thing they could do was take a step out the window and trust in God.” A Jewish woman said, “Yes, and G-d’s answer was, ‘Come home.'” These seemed like comfortable fictions. Why would anyone need uncomfortable fictions?
I don’t know. I may need a few years to think about it.