Without the first, the second would not exist. There is an alternate reality where neither of them exists, but as it stands, they both simultaneously inhabit this one. These images of men falling through the sky have different causes and motivations, but they both symbolize a desperation of spirit that is deeply human even as their position in space seems otherworldly, buffeted by forces of history far beyond their control.
Richard Drew’s photograph of a man falling through the sky on 9/11 proved controversial almost instantly. People felt it was exploiting death as opposed to appreciating life. The thoughts of so many who leapt away from the flames and suffocation at the top of the towers – by some estimates, as many as one in ten of those who died in Manhattan that day – is deeply disturbing to some people.
What those who fell on 9/11 had in common with the Afghans you saw falling from the wheel wells of that C-17 is that nobody thought they were surviving the jump.
Understand, the Afghans who fell from the C-17 didn’t think they were getting out. They’re not stupid. It’s a choice. An uncertain death of desperation vs. A certain death at the hands of your enemies. Falling alone through space in Allah’s blue sky is better than watching your daughter and son being raped as you are strung up by your own bloody entrails to serve as a message to your neighbors.
So they did the last thing they could do: they chose.
The fire rises around them and they choose to exit life in a single desperate act as opposed to the death their foes intend. Kabul is not literally a burning building, but Afghanistan is about to be the equivalent on a nationwide scale. Recognizing this, desperate people do what they will.
It’s not surrender. It’s defiance.
The falling man didn’t know it was terrorists who killed him, but it made his jump no less heroic. One last choice, to go by one’s own step, like the early Christian martyrs who cast themselves into the fire before they would be raped and rent apart by pagans.
So too the falling men of Afghanistan, who knew what awaited them, and chose instead to go by their own lights, in one final act of defiance. But it wasn’t just an act of defiance against the Taliban, it was also against those who betrayed them – the Americans.
No one who witnessed them fall will forget it. No one who was on that plane will forget it. That final act of defiance speaks for itself, and it says: Do not go gentle into that good night.