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Time, perspective and a huge leap of faith

Biff America

They are images that haunt me. Humans in flight, some jumping alone, others plunging in pairs while holding hands. Though time has lent some small perspective to the tragedy of Sept. 11, the pictures of office workers leaping to their death returns to me periodically, producing a palpable sense of pain and sadness.

I think of the anguish and terror of the victims as they took that last step of their lives. I wonder if they were still able to consider their choices and rationalize their decision. Was there a moment when they could relish the coolness and relief from the smoke before they accepted the inevitable truth of gravity?

The year 2001 has been described as “The year that changed everything” – the assertion being our lives will forever be altered. That has not been the case in my sphere of human contact. Without diminishing the tragedy and the loss of so many, for those of us not directly involved, our lives have gone on much as before.

It takes only a moment of reflection to be reminded of the near-infinite suffering of those who lost family and loved ones, yet as time goes on, I think of it less often. Except, of course, for the jumpers.

For months after the event I couldn’t seem get them out of my mind. Often, when I least expected it, out of nowhere, would come the image of those who decided to leap rather than burn. I think of the two women I saw holding hands, skirts billowing, and I shudder. I can’t say it obsessed me, yet I had little control over when or where the image would visit.

I shared my feelings with a musician friend who saw it quite differently. He had seen the pictures; he even wrote a song about them. It was his contention theirs was an act of courage and choice.

“What they did was amazing.” He said, “Whether you’ll live for another 60 years or seven seconds, sometimes you must take a leap of faith. They removed their fate from the hands of the zealots and took control of their lives. Think of those last seconds, leaving the hot building and the coolness as they jumped to immortality.”

After hearing my friend’s perspective, I felt much better. It always amazes me how two people can witness the same event and come away with separate conclusions. You’d expect this to be the case with politics and religion, two subjects that most of us go into with preconceived prejudices. But putting politics and faith aside, you only need to gaze askance at a situation to get another outlook. Unfortunately, that being the case, if you look too closely you might find yourself guilty of that which you denounce.

As a young boy, I’m quite sure I raised money for the IRA. Every year, our church would sponsor bake sales and cookie drives to raise funds for the “widows and orphans” of the “troubles” in Ireland. I remember my mother talking to the other ladies in the church parking lot, saying she hoped some of the funds would go to help “Rid the country of the crown.” I can only guess where the money my church raised ended up. During that time and later, it wasn’t uncommon to see advertisements for corned beef and cabbage dinners to help support the Sinn Fein, which is generally known as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. There are those who would argue IRA members are terrorists. But for those of us living in Boston in the ’60s and ’70s, far away from the atrocities they committed, many considered them soldiers and patriots. When put in terms of today’s times and what we now know of terrorism, I’m sure most would have a different opinion.

Sometimes all it takes is years to lend perspective.

Thirty years ago, my father, and my father’s government, called Muhammad Ali a traitor; now he is considered an American icon. Ali didn’t change; our nation’s opinions did. Currently, Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for war crimes. It wasn’t too long ago when he was courted by this country and considered a major player in Eastern Europe. It has been said victors write history. Milosevic lost the war and now is on trial. Sometimes all that separates a hero from a villain is a hero commits crimes we agree with.

If there is any silver lining of the dark cloud of recent events, it is this country is beginning to look at ourselves through the eyes of the rest of the world. Just as I was able to gain a heretofore hidden insight through the eyes of my friend and his music, we as a nation can gain valuable perspective by considering how we appear to others. Like those brave jumpers from 100 stories up, it takes a leap of faith and a large dose of perspective. But I would caution you to look out for that first step – it’s a big one.

Biff America can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA and KYSL radio, and read in this and other fine newspapers.


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