Tributes left at Flight 93 crash site help visitors make sense of Sept. 11, Bucknell professor says
Alexander Riley talks about his research on Flight 93 symbolism.
Posted: June 17, 2009
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – Over the crest of a hill at Skyline Road, in a corner of the Flight 93 memorial crash site, a wooden cross stands, draped with a white cloth and covered with pins from any number of military and religious groups.
At the base of the cross, a wide range of trinkets and tributes are left for the 40 passengers and crew of the United Airlines flight, which crashed in an open field in this remote southwestern Pennsylvania town on Sept. 11, 2001.
Among the offerings: toy cars and planes, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh, ceramic angels, coins, flags, baseball caps, bottle caps, hair elastics, a Chevrolet emblem and a small sheet of paper from a Ramada hotel notepad, folded in half and secured under a small, flat rock. The note includes a brief message: "From all of us – The Lucente Family."
Passengers on the California-bound flight, which took off from New Jersey, are said to have overpowered a group of hijackers intent on slamming the plane into the U.S. Capitol building after they found out that three other planes had been hijacked and directed like missiles into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That heroic act has inspired an unwavering outpouring of personal, patriotic, religious and sometimes inexplicable tributes at the Flight 93 crash site, noted Alexander Riley, an associate professor of sociology at Bucknell University who is researching the site's symbolism.
"It's fascinating to me, this virtually spontaneous gift-giving that visitors to the site adhere to," Riley said on a recent visit to Shanksville. "They seem to feel obligated to leave things. They have a need to tie themselves to the site. At the same time they have a desire to pay homage. Very clearly there is a need to mark one's presence here."
Riley studies the cultural symbolism of Flight 93. As part of his research, he examines the notes, plaques and objects placed daily at the site and how they contribute to the narrative of Sept. 11. He has discussed his observations in an article, "On the role of images in the construction of narratives about the crash of United Airlines Flight 93," published last year in Visual Studies. He currently is working on a book-length study of the topic.
There are a few common themes among the objects, namely a sort of "civil religion," a term coined by sociologist Robert Bellah, to describe how patriotism and religion are combined as people seek to preserve memories and make sense of catastrophic events, Riley said. Cultural sociology, which Riley subscribes to, says that people remember events in particular ways because of the symbolic structures society uses to frame their meaning.
"Facts and events don't and can't mean anything on their own," he said. "They take on meaning only because we fit them into some already existing set of stories, character types and moral contexts that are given to us by our culture. The memorialization process in this view is not and cannot simply be an account of what really happened. It has to be constructed by us in the terms provided by our culture. "
The 'ultimate sacrifice'
Defining the meaning of these symbols is especially timely as the government works to create a permanent memorial at the crash site. The shape and contents of the memorial are a subject of continuous debate as the victims' families and community members weigh in on how best to memorialize the event. Similar debates surround the World Trade Center site in New York City.
The objects and notes at the Flight 93 site are inscribed with the most personal of messages, many thanking the passengers of the New Jersey-based flight bound for California for their "ultimate sacrifice." So many things are left behind that the National Parks Service, which manages and patrols the site, collects objects periodically and keeps them in an archive, Riley said.
The names of the passengers are carved into a half- dozen memorial gifts, including a set of angels painted with the colors of the American flag, several stone monuments and a series of benches where visitors, some coming in on tour buses, sit to hear volunteer "ambassadors" give lectures about the fateful day.
The passengers of Flight 93, in the view of many, became a de facto military on Sept. 11, which explains, in part, the patriotic tributes, Riley said.
"It is common to tie the narrative into the idea of military defense," Riley said. "There is this idea that even though the passengers weren't in the military, they acted as our army and were called to duty in defense of our country."
Patriotism meets religion
The angels are one of the more obvious examples of civil religion at the crash site, Riley said. At the nearby Flight 93 Chapel in Friedens, the phenomenon is even more prevalent. The Rev. Alphonse Mascherino, who founded the chapel in 2001 and remains its steward, displays a rusty, 3,000-pound remnant of the World Trade Center carved in the shape of UA93 along with flags, eagles and a painting depicting the twin towers, the Pentagon and four airplanes pointed toward God's hands in heaven.
"I just wanted to do something that was more than passive so they (the passengers) will be remembered," said Mascherino, who converted what was at the time a grain storage building into a chapel, shrine and place of reflection.
Riley's interest in Flight 93 symbolism began from his own curiosity about the site, which is about a three-hour drive from the Bucknell campus in Lewisburg, and a fascination with the heroic story of the passengers overtaking the hijackers after they learned of the other attacks. He first visited the site in 2004.
"Perhaps these folks have a sense that their messages are able to get through to the passengers," he said. "Or maybe they think that even if the people in the plane don't see it, the rest of the people who visit will. How do we make sense of events of mass death? Occasionally planes fall out of the sky. Here, people deliberately crashed planes. In all such cases, a central thing people do is try to fit these catastrophic, chaotic events into a narrative of meaning. It is very difficult for humans to exist without a broader framework of meaning that attempts to explain why we're here."
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