April 08, 2015, BY Matt Hughes

Over the past decade, Professor Alexander T. Riley, sociology, has watched the United Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., grow from a patch of barren land to a collection of objects left by visitors to the permanent memorial that opened in 2011. Those observations and what they tell us about America form the backbone of his book, Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America, published in March.

We asked him about the memorial and how it reveals the ways Americans think about themselves.

Q: How did you become interested in Flight 93?

A: In the early aftermath of the crash, we didn't know all the details that we would learn later, but it was already a story that was pretty powerful and amazing, just at an existential level. I immediately put myself in the position of, "What would I have done if I'd been one of those people on the plane? Would I have acted as they had acted, or done something differently? What would those different actions say about me as a person, my identity as an American, and so forth?"

When I first went to the site with my wife, I didn't have any designs to do any research or to write a book. I was just a citizen who went out because I was interested.The crash site itself was this eerie, strange, mystical kind of place.

There was only a temporary memorial at that time, and it was a barren, desolate space, but it was haunted by the knowledge of what had happened. It was a very powerful, theatrical setting that eventually inspired me to think about all sorts of big questions: how cultural beliefs about what it means to be American had affected the narrative about Flight 93 and the efforts to memorialize the event, how we think about these kinds of catastrophic episodes of mass death that mark us so powerfully, and how certain conflicts in American culture could be seen through the lens of the event and the memorial effort.

Q: The title of your book references the "Myth of America." How much of the Flight 93 story is that: myth?

A: In talking about myth, I don't simply mean something that isn't true. All cultures, including our own, have myths, which are simply stories that explain how the group conceives of its origins and its core values and thereby makes sense of its place in the world. That said, the amount of concrete, verifiable information we have as to what took place on the plane is more sparse than many imagine. We have a transcript from the flight voice recorder that contains some information, but much of what we find in that transcript is confusing and not of much use for establishing a clear record of what happened.

Another central piece of the information we have are the phone calls people were making on board the plane — and again, when you look at the number of substantive phone calls, it's really small. Only about 15 of the calls lasted more than 10 seconds, and even fewer than this contained substantive information about events on the plane beyond the most basic.

One central piece of the story of Flight 93 has to do with a vote taken by the passengers as to what they were going to do. In the various films and popular books about the flight, this is often dealt with very stylistically; the passengers are described as engaging in dramatic 'show of hands' direct democracy, directly in sight of the hijackers, who are depicted as essentially recognizing their own defeat in the democratic act itself. Yet we have surprisingly little in the way of factual information on which to base such an event. We do know that one passenger, Jeremy Glick, told his wife, "There are couple of other guys who are as big as me. I'm going to take a vote and maybe we'll see if we can make a decision as to what to do." Does he mean a vote of just the other big guys, or all the passengers? How do we know the event took place as it is so frequently depicted?

Another central piece of what has become the Flight 93 story is the notion that there was a collective prayer that took place among the passengers; in addition to seeing this in the films, I have heard many, many visitors to the memorial sites in Shanksville tell me how much they were moved by this element of the action on the plane. What does the evidence indicate? One passenger, Todd Beamer, prayed the Lord's Prayer, and possibly the 23rd Psalm, with a Verizon operator. There is no evidence that this involved more than the two of them.

Both of these examples show how important American myth is for filling in gaps in the Flight 93 story: we think of ourselves, in our deepest cultural myths, as a fundamentally democratic, God-fearing people, and so any evidence, however slight, we can find to add narrative elements attesting to these qualities is used to make the story of Flight 93 more consistent with the mythological elements of American identity.

Q: So where do these stories come from?

A: People are compelled to try to make sense of things. This is what human beings do: We search for meaning. This was a chaotic, horrible, catastrophic event. How do we make sense of things that seem senseless, especially when we have only basic factual information to guide the process of making meaning? Ultimately, we fit them into the contours of deep systems of symbols and belief that make up American myth.

One of my mentors, the sociologist Robert Bellah, wrote a good deal about what he called 'the American civil religion,' which is closely connected to what I call the myth of America. Bellah showed that there are ways in which American national identity is connected to particular symbols and narratives drawn from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. The combination of these two sets of beliefs and stories creates a distinct set of emotionally charged ideas about the qualities of the American people and our mission in the world. The civil religion is a kind of patriotism in which nationalist figures and events (e.g., the Revolution, World War II, various Presidents) are understood in relationship to Judeo‑Christian stories and symbols .Over the course of American history — during the Civil War, for example — we have frequently made sense of particular events through a lens colored by the dramatic framework of particular episodes in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. For example, seeing the Civil War and those killed in battle as a kind of atonement of the nation in the eyes of our Supreme Judge for the sin of slavery.

The American civil religion presents the American people as charged with a unique mission among all peoples: to carry democracy and defend freedom across the globe. The series of attacks on 9/11 wounded us in our sense of our collective understanding of this elect status: How could such a thing happen to us? More than a few tried to make sense of 9/11 by seeing it as another in a series of events in our history in which the lawgiver God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the same one who punished the Israelites when they periodically strayed from their elect mission, permitted us to suffer as a way to remind us of our duties in his grand plan.

Q: How does the series of memorials erected in Shanksville reflect this idea of an American civil religion?

A: In the days just after the crash, there were police barricades around the crash site. Lots of people would try to get as close to the site as they could, and at the barricade, often they would feel compelled to leave a sign, giving their thanks to the passengers or to the emergency workers. This kind of spontaneous memorialization has been described in similar situations by lots of researchers. It's in part an expression of connection to the event, to say, "I was here." In many cases, it's also seemingly a kind of gift-giving to the heroes, who are seen as having given us the ultimate gift in their brave deed.

So this material started to accumulate, and over time, the objects got more and more numerous. Eventually, a big chain link fence was erected so that people could fasten things to it and they wouldn't blow away in the wind. Over the 10 years or so that the temporary memorial was there, the objects posted on and around this fence just grew and grew.

A lot of the material consisted of images and symbols deeply embedded in the American civil religion: There was flag imagery, a lot of red, white and blue, which you could expect. There was also a lot of religious imagery, and frequently, the religious and patriotic imagery was intermingled. The Angel Patriots of the title of my book were an almost perfect example: flag-decorated angels, one representing each of the passengers and crew members.

I suspect that almost no one who left gifts at the temporary memorial knew anything about Bellah's idea of the American civil religion. Yet the American civil religion forms some of the very basic fabric of how we learn to think about ourselves as Americans. One can find similar symbolic work going on in the permanent memorial design, as well.

When you watch the films or read books about Flight 93 that were written by family members of passengers and crew, they're also drenched in this cultural language. People may not use the term 'civil religion,' but ask them what this symbolic universe looks like and they can flawlessly lay it out: the mission of the American people, our values and our sense of what heroism is. Indeed, they've lived it their whole lives; it's basically their taken-for-granted way of looking at the world. As an American, it's mine, too.

Q: What can these efforts teach us about America today?

A: They show us how powerful the American civil religion remains. There's some evidence to indicate that American society is becoming a more secular, less religious society: The group that's growing most consistently across the country is the folks who don't affiliate with any particular religious group, many though certainly not all of them agnostics and atheists. But at the same time, there's overwhelming evidence to indicate that religious thought, and particularly civil religious thought, remains really powerful and important for informing how Americans think about all sorts of aspects of their existence. These deeply-rooted stories, or myths, about America are a central part of how we think about ourselves and how we think about the country.