falling man twin towers kabul airport plane afghanistan
Meditation and Reflection

Fight or flight? The falling man of Afghanistan has haunting echoes of 9/11

They aren’t stupid. They scramble beneath a US military aircraft and cling to its wings and wheels in the hope of escaping the coming Taliban terror. It is fight or flight – quite literally – and they chose to fly, because the Afghan army seemingly has no appetite for a fight. Freedom, it appears,  is not worth fighting for in Afghanistan. And so they cling like ants to the fuselage of a departing US Air Force C-17 plane as it takes off from at Hamid Karzai International Airport. All they have is a wing and a prayer – quite literally.

They know they will surely die: if the rush of the air over the top of the wing doesn’t push them off with its force of pressure, there will be vortices of turbulence in the sky, sub-zero temperatures to turn gripping fingers blue, and a lack of oxygen causing dizziness and drowsiness. But the feeling of flying even momentarily to freedom is an ineffable ecstasy; an almost mystical union which transcends consciousness and common sense. Why stay and fight to certain death when you can fall in flight to the breath of God?

The falling man of 9/11 seemingly chose to fly to certain death over being burned to death. His flight was wingless: he knew, as did many other ‘jumpers’, that he had no feathers and could not flap. There was no fight to be had with the scorching flames and choking fumes of aviation fuel mingled with acrid smoke: all that remained was the choice of his departing. And the falling man chose free-fall: there wasn’t even an attempt to cling spider-like to the concrete and glass of the World Trade Centre tower. We can try to rationalise his conflicting currents of thought and feeling, but he had no time in his fight or flight decision. There was no decision to make; no resistance to a one-dimensional image of horror. There is the good of the air and the evil of fire. Who wouldn’t choose to fall to earth in the hope of meeting God in the wind?

The falling man of Afghanistan seemingly chose to fly to the possibility of life over being tortured and murdered by the Taliban. His flight had a steel wing at least: he knew, as did many other men, that he either clings for dear life to a plane, or he faces months and years of whips and chains, pleading for death with his eyes gouged out. Perhaps he was a translator and interpreter for the British Army. Perhaps he sold intelligence to US Forces. Who knows what deprivation and depravity he feared. All we know is that all the knowledge and enlightenment in the world wasn’t worth the absolute certainty of another hour of life. He’d rather risk dying over partly living.

When you can’t bring some order to inner conflicts and outer chaos, all that is left is the voice of nature and the love of God. You may not hear the voice, and you may not feel the love, but if there has to be a fall from the sky let us remember that humans have always done this to themselves, right from that first Fall of pride and perversity. The impulses of nature are always right, and the higher love is grace, but we cannot escape the depraved culture until we die; we suffer the terrors of the earth until we lose contact with ourselves.

And this arc of terror leaves bodies falling from the sky: 20 years ago from the Twin Towers in New York; today from a US Air Force C-17 in Kabul. A plot that was hatched in the mountains of Afghanistan led straight to September 11th 2001, and now punishment has come full circle. The War on Terror can’t force an army to fight for a freedom it doesn’t want, but you can choose to set aside the fear and wretchedness and listen to the inner guide of conscience, the still small voice of God, which is divine instinct. And in that moment of inner illumination and bodily inclination, you too might choose the winds of freedom over darkness and devils.