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Seeing Is Believing What You Want To Believe

Perception is reality, or as Henry David Thoreau put it, "it's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." That old saw was put in stark relief this week, thanks to the good folks over at Slate. Yesterday on that site, David Plotz wondered aloud about a picture showing five people chatting away on the waterfront in Brooklyn while New York City literally burned in the background behind them on 9/11 (click the link above to see it). The picture was taken by photographer Thomas Hoepker and is just now being published.

Plotz took issue with the photo because of something New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote about it last weekend. Here's what Rich said:

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. ''They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,'' he told Mr. Friend. ''It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.'' The photographer withheld the picture from publication because ''we didn't need to see that, then.'' He feared ''it would stir the wrong emotions.'' But ''over time, with perspective,'' he discovered, ''it grew in importance.''

Seen from the perspective of 9/11's fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker's photo is prescient as well as important -- a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what's gone right and what's gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

In turn, Plotz asked:
But wait! Look at the photograph. Do you agree with Rich's account of it? Do these look like five New Yorkers who are "enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away"? Who have "move[d] on"? Who—in Rich's malicious, backhanded swipe—"aren't necessarily callous"? They don't to me. I wasn't there, and Hoepker was, so it may well be that they were just swapping stories about the Yankees. But I doubt it. The subjects are obviously engaged with each other, and they're almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them. They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they're bored with 9/11, but because they're citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate.

Ask yourself: What are these five people doing out on the waterfront, anyway? Do you really think, as Rich suggests, that they are out for "a lunch or bike-riding break"? Of course not. They came to this spot to watch their country's history unfold and to be with each other at a time of national emergency. Short of rushing to Ground Zero and digging for bodies, how much more patriotic and concerned could they have been?

We could have been left to ponder (and I think most of us would give more weight to Rich's account simply because he had the first-hand account from the photographer). But one of the people in that picture, Walter Sipser, has contacted Slate and here's his account:
A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they're having a party.

Thomas Hoepker took a photograph of my girlfriend and me sitting and talking with strangers against the backdrop of the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Earlier, she and I had watched the buildings collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn and had made our way down to the waterfront. The Williamsburg Bridge was filled with hundreds of people, covered in dust, helping one another make their way onto the street. It was clear that people who ordinarily would not have spoken two words to each another were suddenly bound together, which I suppose must be a fairly common occurrence in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, "It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened.

Thoreau was never so right.
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