Ask the Experts: Alexander Riley on the cultural narrative of 9/11
Associate professor of sociology Alexander Riley
Posted: September 08, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Alexander Riley, an associate professor of sociology, talks about the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and how our collective memory of the terrorist attacks has changed over time.
Q. You study the cultural symbolism of Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., Sept. 11, 2001 after passengers overtook the hijackers on board. How did you find out about the terrorist attacks, and what were your initial impressions when you visited the site?
A. I was asking myself the other day, now that we are a decade from the events, how much of my memory is trustworthy and how much of it has been embellished by various things. We know that memory is something that is not just rooted in past events but also in certain social processes which take place after the event. This is a story I have told enough times that it has now become the truth: The one thing I know with pretty significant certainty is that I got up late enough that day that I didn't see the live coverage. By the time I got to a television set, all of the really monumental stuff had happened. Both of the towers had already collapsed. The way I found out was my mother sent me an e-mail. The first paragraph just has some everyday business. The second line said, "They got the towers. Horrible day." I looked at it and said, "What?" Then I found a television and found out what was going on.
It was somewhere in the vicinity of 2004 when I first went out to the Flight 93 crash site. My wife and I were talking about it and said, "Why don't we go there? It's so close." I knew, of course, the story of the passengers overtaking the hijackers and was fascinated by it. I don't think I had any sense of what was there. I knew there was some kind of temporary memorial set up, but I didn't know much about it. When we went out there, it was a fall day. The actual site is daunting and impressive. It's on top of a hill, and you have this great view. If the wind blows up there, it gets really cold. We were the only ones there, and there was a sort of drizzling rain and mist out in the field. You couldn't actually get out to the crash site. That is off several hundred yards away from the temporary memorial, but you could see off in the distance this American flag that has been planted to signify the actual crash site. It was a very moving experience. I kind of came in understanding there would be an emotional sense when I got there but it was multiplied by some of the aspects of the physical environment. It really is an impressive space.
Q. What is the temporary memorial like, and what was most surprising about it to you?
A, The thing that strikes you most heavily about the temporary memorial is the fence. There is a huge chain-link fence out there that's just covered with gifts that people have brought. You will have whole sections of firefighters' jerseys and head gear and little patches from their uniforms, and there are vast arrays of other kinds of clothing items and all sorts of other idiosyncratic stuff. At the top of the fence are posted a number of flags. I think there is the normal American flag, and there are three or four other flags that rise up above the fence that have been modified. They are specifically 9/11 flags. One of them has representations of the towers, the Pentagon and the site in Pennsylvania. I was really struck by the participatory nature of the memorial. Probably like a lot of visitors, I looked at the memorial and thought, "What is this material? Why is it here?" It took a little while to figure it out. One of the people working at the site told me this stuff wasn't just placed there by the parks department, which oversees the memorial. This is stuff that people are bringing. This process of placing objects at a site tells us something important about how as a culture we memorialize these kinds of events. There has long been this give-and-take between, on the one hand, the idea that memory and history is made or should be made by official institutions like schools or the government or the folks who are responsible for the caretaking of museums, and, on the other, that history should be something that we all participate in. At the Flight 93 site, people are literally trying to make their own contribution to the memory of 9/11 and Flight 93 and to tie themselves personally to the event. They basically are trying to stake a claim and say, "I was here. I participated in this."
Q. What are some of the more unusual objects you have seen at the Flight 93 crash site that speak to our narrative about the events?
A, The range is so incredible. The parks department, which patrols the site, periodically gathers up stuff left at the site so it won't be destroyed by the weather or won't float away in the wind. They have been collecting and cataloguing this stuff at their office there in Somerset. There are whole boxes of angel iconography, little carved, metallic or ceramic angelic figures. There are whole boxes of baseball caps from every possible place you can imagine, like the local Little League team or somebody's hardware store. One of the sets of objects that really struck me was a set of really big American flags with messages and poems sewn into the stripes. Another flag had the image of a Christian cross instead of the stars and a message that described 9/11 as an opportunity for the U.S. to "come back to God." There was a very deliberate effort to tie together this national set of symbols into a religious set of symbols. The first piece I published on this subject specifically had to do with this idea of how at the site you could see evidence of a civil religion. There is a kind of representational process by which symbols that are both national and religious are mingled together to tell a story about a nation. That flag is a pretty striking example of that process and has really stuck out to me not just because of my intellectual interest in that phenomenon but also in terms of my own personal politics and notions as a citizen. It both fascinates me and, frankly, worries me a bit that this is such a common way that a lot of my co-citizens think about American identity.
Q, The term "civil religion," was coined by the sociologist Robert Bellah to describe the phenomenon of combining religious and patriotic symbolism to commemorate historic events. What is it about these particular events that evokes a link between patriotism and religion?
A, The emergence of a civil religion in connection with 9/11 is not unique. In other historic events of similar magnitude or importance, you see some of this same cultural narrative getting drawn into make sense of things. Bellah in his writings often uses the example of the Civil War. There is a completely secular way of understanding the Civil War if you look at the political infighting concerning slavery and the economic future of the country. But in our history, it's given this cast of a great moral struggle. We think about the Civil War in some ways as this necessary coming to contrition on the part of a nation that had sinned against its own standards, its own ideals and then had to be punished for those sins. It's a narrative modeled on the Old Testament narrative of the errant people called to judgment by their God.
With 9/11, you have not only a huge historical event but also an event in which it's hard to find anything to cheer about. The day was bleak and looks like a clear defeat for the U.S. In these kinds of events, where the nation feels itself really vulnerable, people tend to invoke preexisting narratives about what America is and how we deal with tragedy, all these civil religious symbols and narratives that Bellah says are so deeply wound up into the fabric of our national consciousness. You don't find very frequently in events like this a radically new remaking of the narrative of America. People bring this new event back into an old, comforting story. It's important to remember, too, that the vast majority of Americans are religious. So, that tells you something about the availability and efficacy of these kinds of narratives for making sense of tragedy and suffering.
Interviewed by Julia Ferrante
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