The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, left a scar on the memories of Americans. Those who witnessed the attacks, whether firsthand or on television, remember haunting images of those trapped inside the buildings jumping to their deaths. 9/11 has forever impacted American society, and the word suicide continues to carry the same heavy cultural weight.
Margaret Battin, a professor of philosophy and internal medicine at the University of Utah, has written multiple books on cultural and religious views on suicide. She has helped compile The Ethics of Suicide Digital Archive — a project of the U’s J. Willard Marriott Library and Oxford University Press. According to her, suicide in the U.S. is often defined by the purpose behind the death.
“Consider the man who straps a bomb to his chest and walks into a crowded market — we call him a ‘suicide bomber,’” Battin explained. “Consider another man who falls on a grenade to save his buddy — we call him a ‘hero.’ Yet the mechanism of death is the same — explosive injuries to the chest. But the intentions are very different.”
On 9/11, nearly 3,000 people ranging from 2- to 85-year-olds died in terrorist attacks perpetrated by the extremist group Al Qaeda. Attacks were carried out in New York City, Washington, D.C. and a field just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when 19 men hijacked four commercial planes, American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93.
The collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City left 2,752 dead. Of those, it is estimated that approximately 200 jumped from the upper floors of the buildings.
The rarely spoken of 9/11 “jumpers,” some believe, chose to die by falling rather than being burnt alive or asphyxiated by smoke. Images were captured of the victims in mid-air, such as in Associated Press photographer Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man.” The emotive pictures sparked a debate surrounding the classification of these deaths. To Battin, the leap does not fit into the category of suicide. While the mechanism of the deaths may typically fall under suicide, Battin said the victims’ intentions lead her to label them otherwise.
“So think of the 9/11 jumpers in this way — do we stress the mechanism of their deaths or the perfectly understandable, reasonable intentions they had in escaping a much worse death by incineration?” Battin questioned.
The topic of suicide is generally taboo in the U.S., a country which is heavily influenced by Christian religion. In coverage of 9/11, news organizations chose not to show footage of the jumpers in their reports. People across the country often deny that people jumped, saying they were instead thrown from the building by the flames and explosions.
“To ask whether the 9/11 jumpers were suicides is to trade on the very negative connotations associated with the term suicide and to imply that they did something wrong or perhaps even sinful,” Battin said.
Jumped or forced, falling from the top floors of the World Trade Center to the ground took less time than it takes most people to tie their shoe. With speeds ranging from an estimated 125 mph up to 200 mph, the average descent took approximately 10 seconds. Battin believes that those who fell weren’t desperate to die, they were seeking an escape.
“It seems simply wrong to me to call them suicides when that term brings with it so many negative connotations.”