May 012011
 

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have developed a mythology all their own. They were not the first such attacks on American soil, they did not “change everything,” and they were not entirely unexpected. The facts and circumstances surrounding America’s deadliest terrorist attack are interesting and important enough on their own without being clouded by misinformation and myth. What follows is a brief sampling of the some of the myths and misunderstandings that emerged from the literal and emotional haze of the attacks. Much of the material below comes from Media Mythmakers.

The “Baby Boom” Myth

In the months following the September 11 attacks, many commentators predicted a surge in summer 2002 births. Many couples, so the pundits said, had been motivated to have children because of the attacks. Physicians and hospitals were said to be bracing for a flood of deliveries, and some obstetricians claimed an increase in pregnancies. “This was kind of a wake-up call for people,” said Dr. Paul Kastell, an obstetrician and professor at Long Island College Hospital in New York City. “They saw the towers burning. And when they got home they said, ‘You know, it’s never going to be the right time. We should start now.'” Kastell said that he expected a 20 to 25 percent increase in deliveries.

Despite such predictions, the baby boomlet was not borne out. Said Dr. Jeffrey King at St. Vincents hospital in Manhattan, “I think everyone sort of presumed there would be…a bump in business. But we have just not seen anything out of the ordinary.” Like the largely-mythical “Soccer Mom” voting bloc of the 1996 presidential election, the “9/11 Baby Boom” appears to have been mostly a figment of the news media’s imagination, coupled with speculation loosely based in anecdote and newsbite pop psychology.

The “United We Stand” Myth

Despite the ubiquitous bumperstickers, decals, and T-shirts to the contrary, the simple and sad truth is that Americans are in fact not united against terrorism. The best evidence so far is that the entire anthrax scare, deaths, and terrorism was created by Americans against Americans. In the weeks and months after the September 11 attacks and anthrax scares, thousands of Americans called in fake bomb threats and anthrax hoaxes. From mid-October to November 2, 2001 alone, the Postal Inspection System received more than 8,600 anthrax-related hoax threats. The FBI has also seen thousands of practical jokes, false alarms, and hoaxes.

And it’s not just pranking teenagers scaring Americans with false anthrax warnings. Many hoaxers are in the same professions we have come to see as heroes: Pennsylvania firefighter Steve Welch was charged with making false reports and tampering with or fabricating evidence; Chicago county prosecutor James Vasselli resigned after admitting that he put an envelope of sugar in a coworker’s desk; a Kentucky sheriff planted unmarked envelopes of crushed aspirin on desks; a Chicago postal worker wrote “antrax inclosed” on a package as a prank; an unnamed Washington, D.C. Capitol Police officer was suspended for leaving a note and powdery substance in an office building; two Philadelphia police officers were charged with sending an anthrax hoax from their patrol car computer; and a Virginia postal worker opened mail and sprinkled baby powder inside. She was upset because she didn’t feel that the anthrax threat was being taken seriously enough by her supervisors.

Those who we would think are the most afraid of anthrax threats are, in some cases, the very ones who are causing the fear: children. In a study of anthrax hoaxing by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 172 false threats were made between January 1998 and April 2001. Of 40 anthrax hoaxes in which the perpetrators were caught, over a quarter of them were made by children between 12 and 18.

These hoaxes are very costly, both in terms of time and money. Each hoax can cost tens of thousands of dollars in materials used, lost productivity in shutting down offices and buildings, overtime pay for police, etc. Laboratories as well were swamped with requests to test specimens for anthrax, delaying treatment and evaluation for others in need of medical diagnosis. Terrorist threats, even if hoaxes, are still terrorist threats. In fact, that is one of the main goals of terrorism: to create fear in the public.

In several places Americans threatened to kill Muslims and burn their mosques down. On Dec. 5, 2001, American Clayton Waagner was arrested for sending anthrax hoax letters. A week earlier, 20-year-old American John Walker was captured in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban against America. The truth is that many Americans are participating in the terrorism.

The “Everything Has Changed” Myth

The press and pundits are not shy about co-opting all Americans into whatever niche suits their purposes. But just as not all Americans are united against terrorism, not all Americans are psychologically devastated by the attacks. Time and time again, media experts boldly told us how we are feeling.

From an ABC.com article on post-Sept. 11 holidays, by Dr. Eugene Beresin: “Everyone is taking stock these days of what is truly important.” Really? Everyone is? All Americans have magically begun soul-searching for meaning? I’m sure some people are, but how disconnected and shallow do you have to be that it takes a terrorist attack to make you think about what’s important in your life?

One example of this type of story was an article in the Oct. 7, 2001, edition of the Buffalo News titled “We Are Different Now.” The author writes that “the you that you are now-the person who is completely different from the you of Sept. 10, is not going away.” Not content to describe her own fears and reactions, she boldly and repeatedly co-opts all of America: “Everything has changed. We have been, at the core of our character, rearranged.” Perhaps she is, but I don’t feel completely different than I did before Sept. 11. Of course some things have changed, but surely not “everything has changed.” That assertion is simply ridiculous.

Those who are convinced that all Americans are psychologically scarred see evidence everywhere they look. The author writes, “Think of how long it was before you made love again. Maybe it was right away, needing the escape, the solace, the defiant act of creating life in the face of death. But for others it was days or weeks.” Notice the neat, no-lose trick she set for herself here: If people had sex right away, that’s evidence of how traumatized they are because they needed solace. If they didn’t have sex right away, that’s still evidence of how traumatized they are because they are scared to be vulnerable. And, as mentioned above, the “defiant act of creating life” (as seen in the expected baby boom), was a myth.

Another example is a Washington, D.C., teacher who projected her fears and feelings onto her students. In a November 24, 2001, report by Michele Norris, she describes how she watched in horror as her fifth-grade students “made 3-foot high stacks of books then toppled them with makeshift airplanes. ‘My first instinct was to yell at them,’ she said. ‘I thought how could they be so insensitive but then I realized they were trying to tell us something in the only way they could. Even though they were smiling and laughing, I knew that they were hurting inside.'” I of course wasn’t there but the teacher made several assumptions about her students, including that their play was not simply fun but apparently an attempt at communicating to adults that they were hurting, and that their laughing and smiling in fact indicated pain. Could it be that the kids were just being kids, and that the tragedy wasn’t necessarily reflected in every facet of the kids’ lives, including playing?

One thing I know has changed: In this post-Sept. 11 world, everything can be taken as a sign of devastation. Crying and sadness is a sign that you’re in pain, laughing and smiling is a sign you’re in pain. Having sex soon after the attack is a sign of pain, not having sex until later is a sign of pain.

To state that we live in a different world than before Sept. 11 (or that America is “different”) is at once both self-evident and remarkably uninformative. Unless one specifies what exactly one is talking about, what particular aspect of the world or American life, the statement is empty and facile. Yet we hear it continuously, the speakers and writers using the phrase knowingly as if expressing a profound truth instead of a meaningless platitude.

The hyperbole surrounding the attacks was (and is) astounding. As usual, the media did its best to exploit the situation, and when there was any question of the extent of the damage-both physical and emotional – they consistently erred on the side of catastrophe. Entertainment Weekly magazine even slapped the question, “Can comedy be funny after Sept. 11?” on a cover. A few weeks later (November 2), they began a feature article by asserting, “After Sept. 11, many Americans wondered when they’d laugh again.” Really? For weeks many Americans had circulated bin Laden jokes and pictures by e-mail. Americans had been laughing for weeks and months before the story came out. We were all shaken by the events, but all this is simply empty hyperbole.

An October 10, 2001, ABC News article, “Lingering Emotions,” reported a poll that found that “Nearly half of Americans surveyed – 44 percent – say the attacks…had no lasting impact on their mental health.” Of course this will be news to many Americans, because those dealing well with the tragedy, the 150 million of us, did not make the news. News cameras and reporters focused on the panicked, the alarmed, the devastated. Those who are sad but coping well do not make good stories and therefore are rarely seen on television.

This claim that the attacks were world-changing are not new, of course. We heard similar pronouncements following the Columbine school shooting and the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as the first World Trade Center bombing. I don’t deny that the events of Sept. 11 are of a different caliber, but it’s not as if the media had been stingy with its hyperbole before. In fact, that’s one of the worst things about our media: they hype every story, every minor event, demanding that what they give us is very important and worth watching. Unfortunately, when a truly significant event happens, the press has already spewed its alarmist, panicky adjectives for years. Like the boy who cried wolf, the media has exploited tragedy and spectacle, pushed non-events into prominence, so many times that the Sept. 11 adjectives and labels seem hollow and cliched.

The “Unthinkable Attack” Myth

There is an odd tendency to mystify the Sept. 11 attacks, to claim them to be incomprehensible, as if they are somehow beyond human understanding. A Sept. 24, 2001 ABC News report by Dave Roos called the attacks “a series of unthinkable events that changed everything.” Another ABC News report, “Tongue-Tied,” by Amanda Onion (October 10, 2001) quoted Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford University linguist, who states that “These events defy description.”

But this attack was not unthinkable, nor did it change everything. Certainly, the particular, horrific method that the terrorists used was shocking. But the idea of Muslim terrorists attacking thousands of Americans in the World Trade Center was hardly unthinkable; it had happened eight years earlier, on February 26, 1993. In fact, after months of denials by the Bush White House, it was revealed that the possibility of terrorist planes attacking buildings had been included in pre-Sept. 11 intelligence briefings.

This little fact was missed in a November 20, 2001, ABC News article by Romy Ribitzky, in which he wrote, “prior to last week’s attacks, the idea that Americans are all potential targets was completely foreign to them…” Where exactly are all these Americans who are so ignorant of world events? I guess they also never heard of the August 7, 1998, American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, or the attack on the U.S.S. Cole warship in Yemen….

Apparently none of these events tipped some Americans off to the possibility of anti-American terrorism on our soil. They were too busy watching Wheel of Fortune or Friends or Survivor to flip to the news to find out what’s going on in the world they live in. Socrates said “I am not a citizen of Athens, or of Greece, but a citizen of the world.” Sadly, in modern-day America, that notion seems very remote.

The “World Trade Center Orphans” Myth

In the outpouring of support following the attacks, many people contributed to a Twin Towers Orphan fund, which was set up to help children left orphaned. The New York Times said that thousands of children were left without parents; Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, on National Public Radio, set the number at closer to 10,000. Fortunately, though, there were in fact no children left orphans by the attacks. Nina Bernstein of The New York Times writes that there is “Not a single child who needs foster care or adoption by strangers. Not a single documented case of a child who lost both parents.” These children certainly need care, but that is a far cry from the image that most people have of orphans. The money that was donated to help children left without a parent might have more profitably been spent helping others in need. Or, as Bernstein pointed out, those who have offered to adopt the mythical orphans might do more good by taking in some of the thousands of real children in state custody whose parents lost the right to keep them.

The “We Can Help” Myth

In the weeks and months following the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, many Americans looked for anything they could do to help out. Millions donated blood or gave money to charities. Other attempts to participate were just as well intentioned but poorly thought-out. For example, many chain e-mail messages zipped around the Internet asking the recipients to send cards or to light candles. On September 13, 2001, I received the following chain e-mail: “Friday night at 7 P.M. step out your door, stop your car, or step out of your establishment and light a candle. We will show the world that Americans are strong and united together against terrorism.” I hate to be cynical about this sort of thing, as I understand the sentiment, but it makes no sense. First of all, how are a bunch of Americans lighting candles going to show the world that Americans are strong? Does it take strength to light a candle? What does that have to do with terrorism?

This sort of fluff patriotism was parodied in the Weekly World News on November 27, 2001, when the tabloid suggested a “Freedom Jump” during Monday Night Football on December 3. The idea was that if “Americans jump up and down at the same time it will cause an earthquake on the other side of the world in Afghanistan – flushing terrorists out of their mountain caves.” (Says an unnamed MIT physicist, “It’s so crazy, it just might work!”) It would certainly have no less effect than lighting candles at 7 P.M.

Another chain e-mail, this one circulated in early December 2001, was not only useless but in fact almost certainly counterproductive: “Let’s start a Card Writing Campaign. Go out to your local Hallmark or whereever [sic] it is you buy your greeting cards. Buy a card that reflects what your feelings are about the workers heroic efforts and send it to the New York Fire Department. Just think how powerful an influence you might become. Please send this e-mail to everyone you know or copy it and share it with all of your coworkers, friends, and relatives. They need to know that we, the American people, believe in them! Let’s start our own miracle. Let’s show these brave men and women how we feel about them. DO IT, DO IT, DO IT-Forward this e-mail, send those cards!”

This is another example of what has been called “slacktivism”: easy-to-do, feel good activism that has almost zero effect. Again, I understand and sympathize with the sentiment, but I’m worried it did more harm than good. Here’s why: In the months after September 11, individuals (and especially schools) across the country sent literally tons of gifts, teddy bears, flowers, photos, drawings, notes, letters, cookies, gloves, and so on to Ground Zero. Schoolchildren in Texas sent a thousand pairs of gloves; Miami schoolchildren sent twenty-six thousand teddy bears. Hundreds of other schools sent similar contributions. This is a touching idea, but the workers there couldn’t use or even look at all this stuff. The police and firefighters weren’t sitting around playing with teddy bears and looking at schoolchildren’s letters and drawings; they were busy working hard in dangerous conditions. There were just too many contributions, and resources had to be taken away from the recovery effort to get rid of the tons of gifts, letters, and cards.

Many other items were donated for people left homeless. But hold on: The World Trade Centers were office buildings. Though some people were temporarily displaced, no one was left homeless by the attacks. Everyone who survived the attacks had a home they could return to, clothes they could wear, and so on. What were police and firefighters going to do with thousands of new and used jackets, gloves, and shirts? The firefighters and police were appreciative, but the misguided efforts turned into a logistical problem. Most of the donations were given to local children’s shelters, which is great. But the workers couldn’t look at most of what was sent even if they wanted to. Red Cross media director Nancy Retherford said that those sorts of donations were pouring in, and that “[w]e have bags that are as yet untouched in this room because the volunteers have not been able to get through in a day more than what’s coming in.” This is a case where people’s good intentions caused more problems.

The basic truth is that there was very little that the average American could do to help out after the terrorist attack. Many people made trips to Ground Zero but were rejected because their skills simply weren’t needed. Unless volunteers were experienced metalworkers or firefighters, or had one of a handful of specialized recovery skills, they were turned away or asked to help in other places. Even those who generously donated blood didn’t end up helping the victims of the attacks. According to the 2002 World Almanac, a grand total of five people were pulled alive from the World Trade Center rubble. The Washington Post reported that the American Red Cross collected hundreds of thousands of blood donations, knowing that the blood could not be used for the victims of the attacks. All the blood Americans donated was not needed; there was easily enough on hand at any local hospital to cover the five victims. Certainly, at the beginning it was unclear how much blood would be needed. But within a few days it was evident that they already had much more blood than they could use. Yet the Red Cross still asked for more blood, still ran commercials asking people to donate.

Though some of the actions taken following the attacks were of dubious value, other responses were appropriate and helpful, in particular those that directly helped victims in need. People’s efforts to help also benefited themselves: Researchers found that people who employed “active coping strategies” following the attacks (such as giving blood or attending memorial services) had lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

The “Hatred of Freedoms” Myth

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Americans naturally asked why it happened. In part because of our inadequate and xenophobic news media, many Americans were jarred by the realization that our country had made important enemies in the world. Why did Osama bin Laden attack the United States? What was the motivation for such a destructive act? There were several answers to the question, though the Bush administration’s official line was quickly and carefully set: The United States was attacked because Osama bin Laden hates our American freedoms. President Bush said the terrorists are a “barbaric enemy that hates what we stand for, hates our freedoms, hates our openness.” Using the wonderfully abstract and patriotic word freedom, Bush recast the war in his own simplified and politically convenient terms: “We will defend freedom; we will defend the values we hold dear.” How bin Laden (or Saddam Hussein, for that matter) threatens American freedoms or values is not explained.

The president’s explanations aside, there can be little doubt as to why bin Laden attacked the United States. He explained his motivations clearly and repeatedly in his writings and speeches: His chief complaint is the presence of infidels (i.e., Christian American troops) in the holy land (i.e., Saudi Arabia, homeland to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s shrines). He may be a terrorist, but he’s a religious terrorist, and from those motivations come his actions.

In a December 22, 1998, interview with ABC News, Osama bin Laden began by stating that “we, in the World Islamic Front for jihad [holy war] against Jews and Crusaders, have…issued a crystal clear fatwa [religious ruling] calling on the Nation to carry on jihad aimed at liberating Islamic holy sites…and all Islamic lands.”Bin Laden repeated the purpose of the war on the United States several times, including making statements such as, “We will continue this course because it is part of our religion, and because God…ordered us to carry out jihad” and because of the “unjust American occupation of the land of the two mosques.”

How this was interpreted to mean that bin Laden hates American freedom and openness is unclear. It is not American freedom he objects to, it is American religion and foreign policy. Sean O’Neill, of London’s Daily Telegraph, noted that “[m]ore than any other cause it was the presence of ‘crusader’ forces in the land of Islam’s holiest sites…that turned bin Laden from Afghan jihadi to an international terrorist.” Yet instead of trying to address the root of the problem, the Bush administration ignored the real causes and pursued its own agenda. Bush avoided mentioning the real reasons for the attacks in an effort to downplay religious tensions and not alienate the nation’s (few) Muslim allies. But bombing straw men (and their arguments) is a dangerous approach to international politics.

President Bush, a born-again Christian, has made no secret of his faith. Both Bush and Osama bin Laden are deeply religious men, and each has claimed that his own nation has been chosen by God. Bin Laden has called for a jihad against Christian America; Bush has called for a “crusade” against Muslim terrorists. There is plenty of ammunition in both the Bible and Koran for those looking to justify their wars. Unfortunately, those who do not share either leader’s extremist views (i.e., much of the world) are caught in the middle.

The Nostradamus Myth

Within days of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Centers in New York City, a flurry of e-mails circulated the Internet claiming that the attack had been foreseen by the French astrologer Nostradamus. A dozen or so quatrains were proffered; some were entirely fictional, others partly embellished, not one truly foretelling the tragedy.

This reaction is not new, of course: After nearly every national tragedy, prognosticators claim to have predicted the events. Psychics come out of the woodwork with stories of premonitions of doom, or clutching predictions they wrote ahead of time – or just minutes before.

Meanwhile, those who believe in prophecy sift through reams of vague writings and quatrains, trying to breathe new life into stale words. This is perhaps part of a psychological need to participate in the outpouring of emotions. Some people cry, others hang flags, make remembrance ribbons, or donate blood.

The following is a typical example of the e-mailed prophecies:

“Two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis.
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees latitude.
Fire approaches the great new city.
Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up.
Within months, rivers will flow with blood.
The undead will roam the earth for little time.”

Much was made of the second line, as New York City (the putative Metropolis), lies at about 40 degrees north latitude – though not 45. This piece is a hybrid of actual Nostradamus verse and fiction, though the author was sloppy and even a glimmer of skepticism betrays this as a fraud. Not only is it not in the usual quatrain form, but the bit about the “two steel birds” is particularly revealing, as steel wasn’t invented until 1854, nearly 200 years after Nostradamus died.

Another quatrain read:

“In the city of God there will be a great thunder
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos while the fortress endures
The great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning
– Nostradamus 1654”

Given the fact that Nostradmaus died in 1566, eighty-eight years before the quatrain was supposedly written, it seems a remarkable piece indeed. This was actually published on a Canadian Web page as part of an essay on how easily important-sounding prophecy can be created using vague imagery. It is ironic that what began as an essentially skeptical, anti-prophecy piece became (intentionally or otherwise) circulated as the real thing.

A similar experiment was reported in the May/June 2001 25(3) issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, “The Antinous Prophecies,” in which author Clifford Pickover created nonsensical poems and presented them as recently discovered prophecies. Many people were able to create elaborate, real-world interpretations of the fictional lines. Pickover termed the prophecies “verbal ink blots” which rely on modern readers to easily interpret vague descriptions.

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