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Myth, Mystery, and The Search for Meaning after a Tragedy

It’s been 14 years since the September 11 attacks, and the truth is still more powerful than fiction.

Image via Twitter user @Traceyk224

Yesterday evening, photos of a rainbow seemingly springing out of One World Trade Center after a rainy day in New York City started trending on social media. Taken on the eve of the 14th anniversary of the largest and deadliest ever foreign attack on America, in which 2,977 people lost their lives, these photos came just in time to fuel a new wave of #NeverForget posts across the internet. But this rainbow is more than just a timely coincidence. It’s a reminder of our quest in the aftermath of the attacks to find signs of miracles, grace, and meaning within them—signs that we did manage to find, although not always in the ways we expected, and which we ought to honor today and always.

The search for meaning in the wake of the attacks wasn’t always pretty. Eager for someone to blame, a way to explain the tragedy, a target at which to funnel the rage, confusion, and sadness that drove almost a fifth of the nation into a deep, restless anxiety, almost as soon as the towers fell, we started to come up with all manner of conspiracy theories. The most famous theories, proposing some sort of false flag attack or government cover-up, distilled into the French conspiracy treatise The Frightening Fraud within eight months. But many other conspiracy theories swirled nebulously for months and years: Some said 4,000 Israelis or all the Arab street vendors in the area supposedly knew of an impending attack. Others cited unusual market activity and domain name purchases just before the attacks. People sought mystical, numeric significance in the names of attackers and victims and the numbers of the flights involved. None of these conspiracy theories held any water; all of them were forced readings, distortions of information, or willful acts of ignorance. Many of them were harmful, fueling spikes in anti-Muslim violence amongst other shameful legacies in the tumult of late 2001. But they all spoke to a deep human impulse to order, explain, and prosecute the tragic and ineffable.

Yet just as quickly as we searched for blame, we simultaneously searched for miracles. For some fearing the loss of loved ones in the attacks, wonderous tales of survival and rescue served as a thread of hope. For others, they simply reaffirmed Americans’ abstract reliance—our ability to pull ourselves up from any disaster, to master our fates, and to prevail against utmost adversity.

Many of the stories we told ourselves were false. Tales of tower victims surfing through the air on slabs of rubble to safety on the ground, a seeing eye dog named Daisy who saved her owner and then returned to pull hundreds of others from the rubble—these stories proliferated on the power of rumors and hope alone. And photos of a Bible that supposedly survived the Pentagon attacks unscathed later turned out to show the Holy Book was just a library-style dictionary—a less meaningful relic. More reasonable myths of a baby boom nine months after the attack, a sign of the will to life and resolution to deny those who wished us death, didn’t bear out either. In hindsight, it’s easy to pick apart the illogical assumptions and cinematic structure of these tales, deriding them as naïve and cute. But at the time, we needed these stories as a mythos for ourselves and our futures.

And not all of the wonder tales of 9/11 were fabrications. Almost every one of the most extreme narratives had some correlation to real life. Stories of tower victims riding debris to safety have strong ties to the tale of Genelle Guzman-McMillan and Pasquale Buzzelli, a clerk and Port Authority officer respectively, who fell from somewhere between the 10th and 20th floor of the North Tower when it collapsed, yet survived largely unscathed. Neither man really knows how they survived—there was no action movie stuntwork involved. But their fortitude and luck was the resiliency we needed to hear about at the time. Stories of Daisy the rescue dog were also likely inspired by Appollo, Roselle, and Salty, a police search-and-rescue dog and two seeing eye dogs who aided in the search and were granted Dickin Medals for courage. None were the super-canine that Daisy became in the mythos of the attacks, but all three showed the magical loyalty that we wanted to see in that moment. And there was even one valid symbolic Christian apparition—a cross formed of metal beams that fell from one tower onto an adjacent building, discovered upright and intact by a laborer named Frank Silecchia on September 13 during rescue operations. By October, the cross had been elevated onto a pedestal, blessed with holy water, and adopted as a symbol of faith, healing, and hope by construction and rescue workers—the ultimate sign of what these stories of miracles and strange coincidences meant during the aftermath of the attacks.

Image by Hey Paul via Flickr

The quest for meaning and grace in the attacks has faded with time, but never vanished. Every year we get a few reminders about close calls and chance reunions to spark hope within our dark recollections of this bleak chapter in our history. Lee Lepli searched for his firefighter son, failed to find him at the site of the attacks, reunited with him three months later, and subsequently founded the 9/11 Tribute Center. There are stories of a Morgan Stanley executive who left her office for a cigarette break just before a plane struck her building. Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane narrowly missed being passengers on the doomed American Airlines Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles from Boston. We have a bevvy of things to remind ourselves of our luck, divine protection, or whatever else we wish to project onto these events. Granted, in telling these stories we often forget to talk about the trauma and survivor’s guilt many of these survivors and narrow miss escapees feel. (Even Wahlberg says he’s often dreamed about what he could or would have done if he’d been on Flight 11 when it was hijacked.) But that’s not why we tell or need the tales.

When we search for signs of grace and spirit in tales from 9/11, I think the greatest of them are apparent in the outpouring of goodwill and solidarity shown by the rest of the world in the aftermath of the attacks. Within days of our misfortune, thousands of Chinese citizens and hundreds of Russians who’d never been to America thronged to memorials for our fallen dead. Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Greenland, Japan, and Tajikistan all held candlelight vigils, while Albania, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Israel, and South Korea declared national days of mourning. Kuwaitis lined up to donate blood for us, while firefighters in Hungary, Poland, and South Africa all displayed tokens of their solidarity with those in rescue efforts. Even Cuba sent its best wishes and offered medical aid, Iran gave its condolences and held a moment of silence, and North Korea offered about as much of a show of support as their rabidly anti-American vitriol could allow them to. “We Are All American,” read a headline in France’s Le Monde.

Some corners of the world went far and beyond the call of solidarity and rhetoric as well. Towns in Newfoundland, Canada, often used for refueling transatlantic flights, wound up housing displaced Americans while our skies were closed—the 10,000-man town of Gander took in at least 6,579 passengers, offering up their homes, toiletries, televisions, and phones as events unfolded on the ground in New York. Meanwhile, when the Maasai of Kenya finally heard the full extent of the damage done in America, they held a ceremony in June of 2002 offering up 14 cows, a sizable herd and one of the most significant gifts their culture can bestow upon an individual, to the US embassy. It didn’t seem like much, but for a culture so far removed for our own, it’s hard not to look at that gesture and see a sign of a supreme form of empathy so deep and heartfelt it’s borderline unbelievable.

Stories of survival may be awe-inspiring. And telling them has meaning. They remind us to honor those who died—to Never Forget as we have promised. But the outpouring of instinctive humanity we saw from around the world, regardless of political proclivities, was a sign of the deepest elements of universal compassion and goodwill hidden behind the bluster we throw about the globe every day. These were intentional acts of men, rather than incidents of spirit or chance (depending on your inclination)—and to me that’s far more meaningful when it comes to divining grace and hope from amidst the rubble and horror of 14 years ago.

We don’t always show those signs as much honor and awe as we do serendipitous rainbows. Instead, in recent years we’ve allowed our fears of terrorism to restrict and politicize our own humanitarian impulses in the wake of disasters elsewhere in the world, making it harder for us reciprocate that grace. And that’s unfortunate because these miraculous-yet-intentional acts of humanity and dignity deserve their day in the sun as well. These tales of wonder and solidarity are worth remembering today with as much awe and wonder as we place in any rainbow, no matter how symbolic.

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