I needed to look at 9/11 another way today. After 10 years of seeing the World Trade Center alongside its fiery corpse, and hearing it mentioned in the same breath as tragedy, catastrophe and attack, I wanted to see it as a sign of inspiration.
Maybe it’s a way of me mitigating all the anxiety I felt from the floor of my AP European History class, where we sat in a circle, silently, heads bowed 10 years ago today; maybe it was my way of making sure that I could look at it positively. That’s been a big part of my 2011- trying to make sure that I don’t always feel like the sky is falling around me. And, in essence, that’s exactly what 9/11 was.
So after my morning run, I sat down and watched Man on Wire for the first time. It is a beautiful documentary about Philippe Petit, a French wirewalker who hatched a plan to illegally string a wire between the two towers and walked between the 104th floors. On August 7, 1974, he pulled off the task with the help of a group of friends and collaborators that spanned 3 continents. It’s an amazing story, and was beautifully told by the filmmakers. It was footage of him practicing, interspersed with stories of his previous wirewalk attempts at monuments like the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Notre Dame, and interviews with his collaborators.
There were two parts of the story that really got me. One, the story of how he decided he wanted to do it at all. Petit was in a dentist’s office at 17, reading a magazine, and saw an article about how these towers were going to be built. And the idea of these towers, the dream of these buildings that would tower above the heights of monuments that he knew like the Arc d’ Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, was enough for him. He knew he had to walk between them. I positively loved this anecdote because it shows that this is bigger than we think. When the Towers went down, it was seen as an attack on America. And it was. But it was bigger than that. It was an attack on the dreams of so many others around the world who dreamed bigger than the place they were from. For so many who dreamed of coming to America to find a safe place, a happier place for their family. For my parents, who came here for new opportunities. And for Petit, who literally came to America with a dream that was based on an unfinished pair of buildings.
And the second was seeing the pictures of his quest to conquer this feat that he so many times called impossible, yet made happen anyway. Pictures of the acrobatic Petit balancing on corners of the roof, of the pylons and support beams that held the building up, and this one, of Petit doing a handstand on the still under-construction building. But maybe the most breathtaking for me was one that depicted Petit’s own mark on the building. Because the Towers were not yet fully complete when he completed the walk, he spent a lot of time in the stairwells rather than elevators. And between the 84th and 104th floors, he illustrated his career on the walls of the stairwell.
Amidst the rubble of the South Tower, there was a crude rendering of Notre Dame with the date that he walked between its towers, one of the Sydney Harbor Bridge with the date that he crossed it from midair, and of the Two Towers, with a tightrope drawn between them, with a question mark, as he was unsure when he would fulfill the goal. And even though the story of Petit and his wildly inspirational walk was immortalized in a book and on film, it broke my heart that Petit’s most simple depiction of the event is no more.
Today is a day that will be filled with images of screaming, of fire, and of the intense fear that we felt on this day, 10 years ago. I worry all the time that the World Trade Center will be remembered more for the impact of its destruction, than for the good work that was done within its walls, or the inspiration that it provided for so many. So I offer the images and story of Phillipe Petit as an alternative, as a call to an earlier time when people looked up at the Towers and saw beauty, hope and inspiration, instead of smoke, fire, and the loss of their innocence.