Making Sense of Tragedy
Professor studies Sept. 11 symbolism
Three years after United Flight 93 crashed into a remote field near Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001, Alexander T. Riley visited the makeshift memorial that pays tribute to the heroic passengers who are said to have given their lives to overpower hijackers intent on targeting the nation's capital.
An associate professor of sociology at Bucknell, Riley became intrigued by the notes, plaques and objects -- which include coins, flags and rosary beads -- placed daily at the site and how they contribute to the narrative of Sept. 11.
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. 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," Riley 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."