Few people old enough to remember 9/11 realize three buildings were destroyed that day at the World Trade Center, not just the Twin Towers. I know because the company I worked for at the time had its New York City headquarters in the third building, a 47-story structure adjacent to the North Tower known as 7 World Trade Center. The building caught fire after being struck by debris from the collapsing North Tower and collapsed itself late that afternoon because its damaged sprinkler system lacked sufficient water pressure to handle the blaze. Everyone got out alive but not before witnessing hundreds of people jumping to their deaths from the North Tower and landing with an explosive thud on the plaza outside. Although I knew the general manager of our New York Office slightly, those who knew him better say he was never the same after that horrific day.
There is no lack of photographic documentation of the planes striking the towers on 9/11, of smoke pouring from the upper floors and even of some of people jumping to escape the heat and smoke. But you would be hard-pressed to find any images of the bodies strewn on the plaza before they were buried in the rubble from the buildings’ eventual collapse. As much as Hollywood producers might relish blood and guts on screen, news organizations are notably shy about depicting the real thing. Even local TV news programs, which often lead with stories of car crashes and murder, rarely display graphic evidence of mayhem.
Contrast this with news coverage of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York, which also involved victims jumping from the upper floors of a burning building. Only one of four elevators worked, a stairwell had been blocked to prevent employee theft and the building’s single flimsy fire escape buckled in the heat. The place was a deathtrap. In all, 146 garment workers died in the blaze, which raced through the top three floors of the 10-story building after a rag bin caught fire. Most of the victims were young immigrant women and girls, some as young as 14. Many jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. The New York papers ran with front-page photographs of bodies littering the sidewalk and rows of open coffins that allowed next of kin to identify the dead. The graphic nature of the coverage is credited with spurring passage of laws to improve factory safety and working conditions.
Granted, New York City’s many dailies were then locked in cutthroat competition for readers, and the more sensational the coverage, the better. Yet it is hard to imagine any mainstream media outlet today covering a disaster with such grisly relish. They no doubt would if they could, but their customers would find it offensive. Cultural attitudes have changed markedly toward such things over the last century. The mystery is why the public’s appetite for Hollywood gore has remained undiminished while they demand to be shielded from the real thing.
The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer addressed this question in an essay entitled “The Pornography of Death” (1955). Gorer pointed out that since the 19th century, sex and death have essentially traded places as the “unmentionables” of basic human experience. Judging by the size of families in the Victorian era, sex was no less prevalent then than now; it just wasn’t discussed in polite society. By contrast, death was regarded as a normal part of everyday life. When loved ones died, they most likely died at home and were laid out in the parlor. The sight of a dead body would have shocked no one. Nowadays people die in hospitals, and morticians prettify the remains so it appears the deceased is merely taking a nap in an upholstered coffin in his or her best suit of clothes. Death is no less prevalent now than in Victorian times, but no one wants to talk or think about it — certainly not their own demise.
It is surely no coincidence that the rising taboo surrounding death has coincided with a broad decline in religious engagement over the past century or more. For many people, this life is no longer regarded as a mere dress rehearsal for the next. And although the prospect of hell once held its terrors, they are nothing compared to the inevitability of extinction without recourse. Freud said our own death is unimaginable to us, although I tend to think the issue is not so much “can’t” as “won’t.” For Richard Beck, author of The Slavery of Death, our obsession with success is really nothing more than whistling past the graveyard. He writes:
The American culture is…largely delusional and fictional, characterized by a fundamental dishonesty about our mortal condition. Americans pretend that they are immortal and have “all the time in the world.” Consequently, anything that punctures this illusion–disease, decay, debility or death–is pushed aside and avoided as unseemly and illicit.
Of course, death doesn’t go away just because we pretend it will never happen to us. It finds morbid expression in popular entertainment, which is largely given over to the murderous exploits of comic-book villains, gangsters and serial killers — the pornification of death. “When you suppress honest talk about basic human experiences, interest in them doesn’t disappear,” Gorer wrote. “The interest itself is irrepressible. But that interest bubbles up in perverted forms. With sex you get pornography. With death you get zombie movies.” The victims, by and large, are otherwise young and healthy rather than the aged and infirm who die in hospitals. Chances are, you and I will not go out in a hail of bullets; we will die in a hospital bed hooked up to machines, often after an extended stay in a convalescent home — hardly the stuff of Hollywood drama.
The denial of death is more than a delusion. As Franz Kafka once observed, the meaning of life is that it stops. Think of death as the period at the end of a sentence. Without a period, your life would quickly devolve into a run-on sentence lacking any coherence. You need to finish the thought, which means coming to terms with the fact of your own mortality. Sex is sometimes referred to as “the facts life,” but death is just as surely a fact of life. To pretend otherwise is to turn it into something obscene.