When I tell people what my thesis is about, I am often asked, “What is the American narrative? What does that mean?”
My thesis that I’m working on focuses on the fabricated pieces of our nation’s history, the parts of what we have been taught for generations that give more strength and power to the perception of America’s greatness. Every country has their own narrative (for instance, England doesn’t speak much about their prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade and France raised generations of children who’d never known the Parisian police’s role in a particularly deadly Jewish round-up of tens of thousands, mostly children). Each region of the United States has its own narrative, too. One cannot discuss the Civil War without also acknowledging the mindset of Northerners, Southerners, and that of Winston County, Alabama. In today’s world, one also cannot discuss the terrorist attacks of September 11th without imagining what an incredible story it would have been had the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 actually succeeded in landing their plane safely rather than nose-first into a barren Pennsylvania field.
At least, I can’t. And therein lies some of the answer as to why we believe in stories that just aren’t true.
Last night I watched United 93 with my daughter. I had a preconceived notion that the movie would be filled with cheesy hoo-rah American greatness. It wasn’t. I also assumed that Todd Beamer (he of “Let’s Roll!” fame) would be assigned the role of hero. He wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know his place in the whole movie until close to the end when the camera closed in on a man quietly whispering the Lord’s Prayer with a ground-based operator via an airphone. For the majority of the film, during which the military was made to look like a bunch of assholes and the FAA came out as the only competent organization, the point of the movie was very clear: it was a team effort, on the part of the passengers, to get into that cockpit.
In truth, nobody knows what happened during the last minute or so while UA93 was still airborne. However, most people can just watch the movie and assume that the passengers made it inside. The movie depicts the passengers breaching the cockpit and coming painfully close to gaining control of the aircraft. There was, in reality, a passenger who had experience as a single-engine pilot and another passenger who’d spent years doing air traffic control. Ideally, these two could have, under the best of conditions, landed the plane. Without additional time and distance from the ground on their side, though, it just wasn’t meant to be. Officials had no idea that UA93 had even been hijacked until four minutes after it had already crashed. This, I believe, gives more strength to the story that these passengers were in it alone.
Recordings show that the passengers struggled violently with the hijackers and probably did make it into the cockpit. The movie, on the other hand, shows that the single-engine pilot/passenger took over the captain’s controls while one of the hijackers maintained his place in the co-pilot’s seat. The plane, as we all know, crashed with so much force that most of it was swallowed by a hole that most thought wasn’t possibly wide enough or deep enough to be the final resting place for such a large machine. These days, a park near Shanksville, Pennsylvania keeps visitors away from the acres of land where small pieces of airplane debris and human remains were driven into the ground and will probably remain forever.
And this is how heroes are made sometimes. This is how the American narrative is written sometimes, too, and has been for hundreds of years. Our myths give unending life to patriots and heroes when we need(ed) them most. We have historically taken events that happened and turned them into a way to lift up the spirits of not only Americans, but American supporters around the world. In a way, the authenticity of the event, and of the people or places involved, is compromised for the sake of better storytelling. At times the real stories are so altered or, worse, forgotten, that the make-believe version becomes the only version we know. So we pass on these tales to the next generation, and the stories are printed in history textbooks as real events, and nobody takes responsibility for the truth. Again, we are not the only country to do this – every country has their own folklore, their own mythical histories that make a land (or, in some cases, a religion) worthy of the blood that was surely spilled in its honor.