Visualizing the Unspeakable

In addition to teaching creative writing courses in nonfiction at Sweet Briar (personal essay and memoir), I teach journalism, so I am constantly looking for Web-based tools for journalists to use when trying to explain complex issues and events.  One tool that I came across recently is a service of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) called Dimensions: How Big, Really? that helps you gain an understanding of the physical scale of important news events based on the size of things that you might already be familiar with.

One of the features on the site provides perspective on the scope of key events in the “War of Terror.”  Ever wonder how big the World Trade Center “footprint” really is?  To give you an idea, the site designers superimpose the Towers over top of London.  They map the flight path of the hijacked jetliners on 9/11 over top of Europe.  They show the flight path of an unmanned Predator drone flying missions over the Middle East mapped over top of England and Western Europe.

A man stands in the rubble, and calls out asking if anyone needs help, shortly after the collapse of the first World Trade Center Tower 11 September, 2001, in New York City. (DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images)

At first glance it seems like just another cool novelty Website, but consider that you can also type the name of your city or your postal code into a search window so that you can see the Twin Towers superimposed over your city or neighborhood.  Type in “Sweet Briar College” and you can see the Towers in relation to our beautiful campus.  

There’s something eerie about seeing the “War on Terror” superimposed” over places you know very well and care deeply about.  But beyond the eerie-ness and pathos, the larger point of such an exercise, especially for those of you enrolled in our class, 9/11 and the “New Normal” Decade, is that it allows you to take a step back and see the events of the last ten years from many different perspectives, perspectives that would be impossible for you to countenance otherwise.

August 6th was the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  It’s an event that captured my imagination from a very young age, and one that I wrote about in my first book, A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.  Once a year, on the anniversary of this awful event, I allow myself to imagine what the landscape around me would have looked like had the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy near my home.  It’s a hard thing to do because you have to imagine all the people that you care about and love who would perish.

Allied coorespondent stands amid rubble of Hiroshima, Sept 8th 1945 (Photo: AP)

This year’s anniversary was even more poignant for me, as I discovered a visualization of the city of Hiroshima that brought the event home to me in the most poignant way I’ve yet encountered.  Using Google Earth, you can now see, superimposed over the city of Hiroshima, the faces of people who perished and the location where they lived and died, as well as their biographies. You can also see photos of the devastation next to what the city looks like today, and watch video testimony of survivors and their relatives.

Though we cannot go back and undo the past, we can certainly deeply engage with, and gain never-before-possible perspective on the effects of historical events and difficult decisions that once seemed so distant, impersonal, and inaccessible.





About dgriffith

Dave Griffith is Assistant Professor of English at Sweet Briar College. He is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.
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