Commemoration in the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel in Shanksville as a commemoration of United Airlines Flight 93. It first provides the narrative on the origin of the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel before discussing some of the meanings being associated with the chapel, in the form of possible or likely readings of its symbolism in the context of the broader American culture. It then considers how people interact with the symbolic material at the chapel and how these interactions change the meanings that emerge from the symbols. It also explores the cultural narrative at work in the chapel, with particular emphasis on how dead bodies and their representations, even if they are not the bodies of heroes, acquire special symbolic importance. The chapter suggests that the basic meaning of the American flags present in the chapel is tied into the sacrificial death and transfiguration of the hero.
About eight miles from the site at which Flight 93 struck ground, along a stretch of a sparsely populated country road dominated by farmland and woods, sits a small chapel dedicated to the passengers of Flight 93. It is eight miles, that is, if one is following the serpentine local roads, but only about half that as the crow flies. If however you are not possessed of the power of flight, leaving the crash site toward the chapel, you retrace your steps out to Lambertsville Road and head back through Shanksville. At the post office, you turn right on to Stuzmantown Road and follow its winding curves, through postcard-picturesque rural Pennsylvania countryside, for several miles until, at the intersection of Stuzmantown and Coleman Station roads, you find a small, nondescript white building, remarkable from the outside only because of the bell tower at its entrance that is taller than the building itself. To one side of the chapel, separated from it by Coleman Station Road, lies a small, plain country cemetery. The late Alphonse Mascherino, the first pastor at the chapel and the man responsible for its existence, once told me, in his assertive, theatrical voice, that he was occasionally asked by a visitor to the chapel, in hushed, respectful tones, if the passengers of Flight 93 are buried in that cemetery. On the chapel’s other side is the guesthouse, a modest one-story, four-room home that serves as the temporary dwelling for family members of Flight 93 passengers when they visit the chapel. During annual commemoration ceremonies, it also serves as a kind of group home for assorted members of the passengers’ families, invited speakers, performers, and other participants in the ceremonies at the chapel. Over the past several years, Father Mascherino frequently gave me the keys to the house during research trips to Shanksville. My family has accompanied me on nearly all of those trips, and, for a time, my young daughter was there so frequently that she referred to our own (p.112) home in Lewisburg as “the Riley house” and to the chapel guesthouse as “the other Riley house.”
Throughout this book, the tension present in my consciousness between the multiple identities and identifications I described in the opening chapter makes itself known in myriad ways and, frequently, it has made the work much more difficult than I might have wished. As a scholar invested in a more or less clear distinction between purely subjective observation and social scientific analysis that aims beyond that to a more objective accounting, I feel the responsibility to look at the phenomenon under consideration as dispassionately as possible, with a distance that will allow a level-headed, impersonal account. As an American citizen with strong moral and political positions on many of the issues that are fought over in the construction of meaning about Flight 93, I feel compelled to take stances, to make judgments, and to defend those ideas with which I am in agreement and to criticize those I oppose. As a human being, with deeply emotionally invested personal relationships and the moral responsibilities those naturally entail, I feel bound by specific loyalties and friendship ties to withhold both political judgment and objective scientific evaluation in the interests of human warmth and fraternity. These various perspectives struggle with one another in many of the other chapters in the book. But it is in this chapter, more than any other, that the struggle is at its most compelling. I have deep, and deeply conflicted, feelings about the Flight 93 Chapel. I called its founder, Alphonse Mascherino, my friend, and he made it clear in many ways, not least of which was his frequent habit of presenting me to the congregation as I attempted to sneak in unobserved, that he considered me a member of the chapel’s community, and he always addressed me as “brother.” There is much in the symbolic work going on at the chapel that I personally find tremendously emotionally moving. At the same time, some of the meanings being generated there, in the form of possible or likely readings of the symbolism of the chapel in the context of the broader American culture, are more difficult to reconcile with my own political and cultural beliefs. And I also know that some of what is revealed here by the scholar in me would perhaps have failed to fit my friend Father Fonzie’s own understanding of what is going on there. I know that these dilemmas have no solution, and I know that writing about them poses risks, which I accept in undertaking this task.
In the beginning, of course, there was no chapel. The origin myth of the Flight 93 Chapel is itself a part of the mystical, symbolically and morally charged narrative of its meaning. Mascherino told me the story for the first time as we sat in front of the altar on a sunlit morning and a few visitors milled about; he occasionally paused in his telling to assist the visitors or direct their attention to particular features of the place, or to allow me to fumble clumsily with the digital recording device I was using to record our conversation. In the first moments after Flight 93 crashed, he began, memorial efforts sprang up in Shanksville, which were described in the previous chapter. Mascherino pointed to a poster board that now sits atop a table near the entrance to the chapel.1 This was one of the very first such works, a sign saluting “the heroes of Flight 93” and bearing dozens of signatures and expressions of thanks. It appeared in the yard of a local resident, whose home was situated at the police line that turned back those attempting to get to the crash site in the early moments of the aftermath. The family set it out and pilgrims on their way to the site signed and wrote messages on it before turning away from their quest to locate the crash site. In these early moments after the catastrophe, Mascherino noted (here echoing a theme widespread in the mass media in the early aftermath), the sentiments were
universally expressive, “God bless America,” “God bless the heroes,” “God bless the families,” and this was being done at the same time that the churches were being filled throughout the nation after September 11 … and that expression of faith in God, faith in the expression of religion was so prevalent. … [T]hen the story came out that the heroes of Flight 93 prayed together. … I understand they prayed the 23rd Psalm … for courage and strength, confronted by these terrorists who were hell bent on killing them. In the midst of that turmoil to turn to God and pray, that’s what impressed me.
Inspired by his perception of an atmosphere of heightened religious awareness in the wake of the attacks, Mascherino, who was at the time an unassigned Catholic priest from the Somerset area without a (p.114) home parish, wrote an essay that he titled “Thunder on the Mountain” in which he describes “our hills” of Shanksville as “hallowed ground” changed forever by “Giants who are … honored here” as “Heroes.” Mascherino’s prose is unabashedly hyperbolic: “In the final moments of their lives, they demonstrated courage, strength, purpose and commitment. Their message is clear: to be free, completely free, let no one, let no thing take control. We are Captains of our Destiny, Masters of our soul. … [W]e can make a difference in the destiny of the world.” Clearly exceptionally moved by the event, he began making buttons bearing the thanks of the town and distributing them to emergency workers at the crash site. The idea came to him in these early days after the crash to establish a memorial site for the passengers where visitors could pray and intermingle in the same ecumenical spirit he believed could be seen at work in the last moments of Flight 93. The temporary memorial site already existed, but “I knew,” Mascherino told me, “the government was not going to build a place to pray or that was about God.”2 It was during one of his numerous trips back and forth from Shanksville to distribute the buttons, in late October 2001, that he saw the “For Sale” sign outside the abandoned chapel on Coleman Station Road. He inquired, but was disappointed to learn that an offer had already been accepted. Undaunted, he looked at two other sites, one in the immediate area, another some 30 miles away in Johnstown, but both were prohibitively expensive. His inspiration seemed to have met an abrupt, early demise. But about two weeks after his inquiry, he got a call from the real estate agency handling the property on Coleman Station Road; he was told that the first buyer had backed out and that the property was again available. It was priced at $18,000 and the required deposit was $800, a significant amount to raise for a lone Catholic priest without any organizational backing and few resources of his own. One of those few resources, however, was a personal collection of antiques and Hallmark ornaments Mascherino had amassed over the years. Among other items, he sold six dozen Christmas Barbies, which he had originally purchased at $12.95 each, for $65 apiece. The sale of this material enabled him to make the deposit and later the settlement on the property. In his description of the twists and turns involving the property’s status and the constant struggle to acquire the needed money (p.115) at various steps in the process of purchase, a discourse of the mystical and miraculous is quite present. He emphasized numerous events along the path to the purchase, reconstruction, and opening of the chapel that he explicitly posited as supernatural in origin, and he was quite unrestrained in his praise of what he referred to as the “great generosity of the Power of the universe, you cry out to the universe your need and the universe responds. Cry out to God and before you even ask Him anything, He already knows what you need. … I just went along for the ride.”
During the Christmas holiday in 2001, Mascherino visited with his elderly mother and other members of his family. He told them of his plans to purchase the church and turn it into a chapel for Flight 93. His family was decidedly unenthusiastic, stopping short of ridiculing the idea but certainly less than convinced that he would be able to pull it off. His mother, however, who was seriously ill at the time and, as it turned out, in the last few months of her life, listened approvingly to his plans. It was during this Christmas season that two important, and in Mascherino’s telling supernaturally driven, developments took place. He was still uncertain as to where the money for the closing would come from, as his antique collection was attracting buyers, but in a trickling stream too slow to generate the amount he needed by the required date. His brother-in-law abruptly announced to him, after previously expressing a distinct lack of confidence in the plan, during his holiday visit that he would purchase the whole of the remainder of the collection of ornaments Mascherino was trying to sell so that he would have the necessary funds in time. He also had a prescient dream during this same period. In the dream, he saw the chapel completed, in detail fundamentally identical to the look of the actual chapel today. The symbolic narrative of the chapel, the cultural signs it would contain and which would come to define it, revealed themselves essentially in their entirety to him in this dream. He had at this point measured the church in detail, so he knew well its architecture and dimensions, but he could not yet envision in his conscious moments what it would look like when completed. In the dream, memories of his childhood fascination with Roman cathedrals and of his work some 15 years earlier to remodel the church to which he was then assigned in a nearby county came together (p.116) and produced the fruit of a full-blown civil religious monument to the heroes. The design was informed, he told me, by three principles that were always before him as he envisioned the chapel: it had to be noble (“of the highest quality”), infinite (“of the longest duration”), and worthy of the heroes it commemorates.
In August 2002, he was, in his words, “out of everything, out of resources, out of energy, out of inspiration,” and the chapel was still but a shell, looking much more like the abandoned grain storehouse it had recently been than a memorial shrine to Flight 93. Then, a local 84 Lumber manager who had become aware of Mascherino’s struggles phoned Maggie Hardy, the owner of the company, and told her of the situation. Instantly inspired by the project, she gave Mascherino a grant of $23,000 to finish the work, even furnishing the labor required. His narrative here is remarkable, and always, when he repeats this story for the chapel congregation at events, delivered in high dramatic fashion: “She looked at the plans to finish it and said, ‘I think this is significant. … [I]f you don’t mind, I’ll do this for you.’” She took over the work on August 31, 2002, and had her team work around the clock, finishing the chapel just in time for the one-year commemoration ceremony on September 11, 2002. Mascherino went on: “I never dreamed it would be possible that someone would come forward and just say, ‘I’ll do it for you,’ and undertake all that work and all that expense. … [S]he was here every day and she’d be saying to the workmen, ‘you do everything he tells you, I do not want to hear you say “no” to him.’… [S]he was absolutely committed.” Hardy taped an interview with a local television station about the chapel and, afterwards, told Mascherino, with a sly grin, to be sure to see it when it aired later. In the interview, she recounted Mascherino telling her, “If God wants it finished, God’s going to have to do it,” then added “I’m not God, but I think God sent me to help him and I will build that church for him.” In the fashion of many folk-tales about supernatural assistance, Hardy performed her good deed and then instantly disappeared: “It was finished on September 10 and I never saw her again, she never came back to the chapel.” He finished the story by relating one of the last things she told him after the chapel was completed: “Your carpentry days are over. Now you have other things to do.” (p.117)
A Tour of the Chapel’s Symbolic Universe
Such is the narrative of how the chapel came to be, a story that Mascherino routinely delivered with a remarkable combination of dramatic flair and sincerity to the congregations that gather there every September 11. The narrative he wove is undergirded by the actual material structures at the chapel that are in many cases themselves symbols and narrative elements concerning Flight 93, its passengers, and the meaning of their deed. The first thing one sees from just outside the front entry of the chapel, and the first sign that this is not just a farmhouse, is the impressive bell tower, at the top of which rests what Mascherino dubbed the Thunder Bell (figure 4.1). That title, and the phrase “The Voice of Flight 93,” are painted on the bell itself, which was given to the chapel by a local man from Somerset. As Mascherino told visitors to the chapel, (p.118) the bell provides a “mystical relation between the chapel and the crash site,” as its ring can be heard several miles away on the hill where the plane went down. He told congregations that the crash site is visible from the top of the 44-foot steel belfry. Numerous times when I was in attendance, he invited someone from the congregation to ring the bell on exiting the chapel as a way of symbolically expressing unity with the deed of the passengers. In doing so, he told them, they affirmed the will never to forget their heroism and to propagate that message to those who had not yet heard it.
To the right of the bell tower is the Memorial Torch of Liberty, a 12-foot metal sculpture crowned by a torch approximating the one held by the Statue of Liberty in its design, and therefore linked explicitly to the American civil religion’s narrative structures. The torch is fully functional and at night gives off a powerful quarter-billion-candlepower beam that can be seen for miles in every direction. It is, like many of the art objects in the chapel, the work of a local resident, a retired master blacksmith from Somerset.
Entering through the front door, one immediately discovers that there is no vestibule; once through the door, one is suddenly thrust into the very heart of the chapel. Mascherino told me this was a conscious architectural move designed to contribute to the participatory, democratic sentiment he envisioned for the chapel. A traditional church vestibule provides an intermediate space between outside and inside the church, an additional boundary to be passed through in Mascherino’s account before one can truly be welcomed into the spiritual life of the building. The existing internal structure of the old church included a vestibule, but Mascherino had it removed. Here, instead, visitors move, without the need for transitional ritual to attain purification, immediately from the outside, profane world into the core of the chapel’s sacred structure. In Mascherino’s words, “I wanted people to open up that front door and see the entire vista.” He spoke in distinctly mythical terms of an imagined “humble little church of my youth,” a prototypical “little church in the wildwood” where despite its humble external appearance “when you open the door, you are confronted with this glory to the honor of God, and who would expect to see this inside a little country church? The glittering chandeliers, the pillars, these are the kinds of things you see in the cathedrals and the great churches of Rome.”
(p.120) At the immediate right on entering the chapel is the meditation room (figure 4.3). Here, one gets a first powerful glimpse of the symbolism at the heart of the chapel’s civil religion. Mounted on the wall at the far end of the room is a mural depicting an American flag and bald eagle. Below it, on all sides of the room save that which holds the doorway, hang individual framed biographies of the 40 passengers with photos. Below the biographies runs a ledge bearing votive candles; a visitor can add his or her own candle to the collection to indicate, as in traditional Catholic practice, that one is praying for the souls of the departed. Civil religious and religious iconography and symbol weave seamlessly together here. There is some symbolic complication, however. Below the martial American eagle and flag motif, to the left of the entrance, are two flags that escape the nationalist dominance of the American symbolism. Alongside the biographies of the two passengers who were foreign nationals, Toshiya Kuge (a 20-year-old Japanese exchange student) and Christian Adams (a 37-year-old German wine exporter), stand their respective national flags. In the absence of wind, they remain unfurled and so are visually less imposing than the iconic American flag imagery
The iconic eagle of the Meditation Room also soars behind and above the altar (figure 4.4). This primal symbol of ascension, profoundly linked to American patriotic narratives from early in American history,3 flies in a blue heaven swept by clouds that are heavenly white in its upper levels and fiery red below. Dotting that celestial sky are 40 stars, each one representing a passenger on Flight 93. Only 38 are visible, Mascherino once explained to me, as they were painted before the eagle was mounted and the icon of flight now blocks the visitor’s view of two of the stars. In red letters on the wall directly behind the altar are the words “One Nation Under God.” Below that, more text:
- And his name shall be called Wonderful
- Almighty God
- Everlasting Father
- Prince of Peace.
(p.122) This is from Isaiah 9:6, an Old Testament passage frequently pointed to by Christians as prophecy of the coming of Jesus, yet the titles given the national God here are denominationally unspecific and arguably point not to Jesus but instead to the lawgiver Judeo-Christian God described by Robert Bellah as the deity of the American civil religion.
Altar and political monument here become indistinguishable. One comes to this place to worship both the Judeo-Christian God who protects the American polity and that American polity itself. Mascherino’s phrase “Thunder on the Mountain” already places the memorial in a powerfully resonant social imaginary for American Christians and Jews. The mythical narrative that Mascherino chose to connect the memorial to is one of the most essential in Judaism and Christianity: that of the giving of the Ten Commandments. In this episode from the Old Testament, the Israelites, after their emancipation from Egypt, arrive at Mount Sinai, where they are told by their God, “You shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”4 How will this covenant be ritually formalized? Yahweh informs Moses: “I am coming to you in a dense cloud. … Go to the people and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. … [O]n the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of all the people.”5 There are strict ritual demands made; no one, save for Moses himself, must go up the mountain during this time, nor even touch it, under penalty of death. The Israelites are to go to the base of the mountain where they will be able to perceive the miraculous appearance of their God:
On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. But … they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder. When the Lord came down to the top of Mount Sinai, he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up to him.6
It becomes evident on close examination of the chapel’s invocation of symbols with religious significance how carefully they were chosen to avoid falling too narrowly into one or another denomination’s specific religious narratives. The God invoked is, again, not the Christian God. He is a Judeo-Christian deity stripped of the attributes that would too narrowly identify him with one or another religious community and make it harder to reach the wide community of Americans infused with broad, amorphous Judeo-Christian narratives. There is no prominent Christ on the cross at the chapel, and a stained-glass window above the entryway solidly ties the chapel’s religious message into the Old Testament. It bears the Hebrew text for “Zion” along with representations of the Mosaic law tablets and a menorah.
It is not hard to locate the ways in which this narrative functions in the visual aspects of the chapel. Flight 93 becomes the voice of God, the thunder and lightning on the mountain that brings the message of chosen status and holy covenant to the people on the ground below. It is a terrible thing to behold, as is the appearance of Yahweh to the Israelites at Sinai, and severe ritual restrictions are necessary in order even to survive the sighting. But the ultimate meaning is the confirmation of the status of America as holy nation. In this way, the seeming defeat of 9/11, the destruction of the entire crew and passengers, and elsewhere the destruction of many more lives and monuments to American success, is all symbolically converted to spiritual and moral victory. America’s God chooses a harrowing mechanism for the delivery, or redelivery, of the covenant message, but this is only to assure His people of His majesty and the seriousness of the affair. Has He not after all “raised [them] up on eagle wings”7 to bring them out of their bondage? The eagles in the chapel and on the flagpole at its entrance serve as a reminder of this deliverance. The schemata of ascension in the flight of the eagle is one of the most basic languages of the imaginary; it represents the path upward, toward the heavens.8 Valorization and verticalization are firmly attached in much human symbolism. As the mythologist Gilbert Durand has noted, the role of the stair or ladder in primitive and classic myth is a powerful example, and not only is it so that “the exemplary (p.124) means of ascension is the wing,” but also that “for the Semitic-Christian tradition, the multiplication of wings is a symbol of purity; wings are the stripes of the heavenly army in the six-winged seraphim of Isaiah’s vision. … [A]ll elevation is isotopic with purification because it is essentially angelic.”9 We might say much more about the importance of such ascending motifs to 9/11: towers, ladders, stairs, the various narratives of firemen rising up those stairs to rescue the trapped, despite their own interests in self-preservation, and who, in climbing the stairs, move upward toward the heavens, which they finally reach, in the view of many onlookers, by their act of ascension, even as the crumbling tower forces them physically into descent. Planes are obviously a focal object of the events of 9/11, and the role of flight in our collective imagination and dream life is profound. Along with the cinema, which gave us the magic of seeing the dead move about before us, a second magical machine, the airplane, emerged at the beginning of the 20th century to make real something previously attainable only in the realm of the magical. Before there were planes, only angels had wings.10
To the left of the altar stands a large plaque bearing each of the passengers’ names. To the right, an identically sized plaque bears the phrase “We shall not falter, we shall not waver, we shall not fail,” followed by names of political figures associated with the response to the 9/11 attacks: President Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Queen Elizabeth II and Tony Blair, the late Pope John Paul II, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former head of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania representative John Murtha, former Pennsylvania attorney general Mick Fischer, and a collection of local officials including the Somerset County coroner and the mayor, fire chief, and assistant fire chief of Shanksville. Red, white, and blue altar candles are mounted below this plaque, and several American flags frame it. Another item of note on the right of the altar is the gift of a former Marine of an Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem worn on Marine uniforms. It is mounted on a wood plaque with a carved message: “The brave Americans who boarded Flight 93 did not know they would be called upon to become warriors for good in the ever present battle between good and evil. Even so, they excercised [sic] their God given right to freedom by taking a vote and then took Osama’s killers to the ground. Since I do not know of any who earned (p.125)
One of the most striking pieces of culture in the chapel can be seen on the wall to the right of the altar. It is a painting by a local artist identified on the painting only as “Doree,” depicting four planes soaring into the heavens (not crashing downward, but going up and thereby marking spiritual ascension) into the waiting hands of a nondenominational, civil religious God, while below are visible the smoking remains of the World Trade Center, the damaged Pentagon, and the hole in the Shanksville field made by Flight 93 (figure 4.5). The artist titled the painting (p.126) “287 Patriots,” and I initially suspected this was intended to represent the passengers and crew who had perished on the four planes, but the actual number of those dead on the planes is 246: 40 on Flight 93, 87 on Flight 11, 59 on Flight 77, and 60 on Flight 175. I asked Mascherino about the title and he too was puzzled by its referent. My efforts to contact the painter to inquire about the title proved fruitless. The puzzle of the title, however, clearly does not prevent visitors from viscerally connecting to the message; virtually every time I have been in the chapel, I have seen people gazing intently and with evident emotion at this canvas.
There is another collection of objects at the chapel that are infused with a yet greater symbolic valence, a discernibly more potent variety of sacredness that separates them from these objects I have just described and marks them with a power viscerally felt with a particular intensity by many who visit. Resting in the crook of one of the chapel windows is a hermetically sealed and folded flag in a triangular glass case bearing an inscription that tells viewers it was flown at and thereby consecrated by its proximity to the World Trade Center site on the sacred date of the Fourth of July, 2004. Just in front of this flag sits a chunk of construction block in the shape of a half circle, labeled “Pentagon Remnant 9/11/2001.” In another window rests a solder-covered piece of I-beam from the World Trade Center wreckage. Behind the chapel, alongside the fence marking the border between the it and the guesthouse, there is another remnant of the World Trade Center, this one a massive metallic object weighing, by Mascherino’s account, close to a ton that has been welded and cut to name Flight 93 and the three locations where hijacked planes struck ground on September 11 (figure 4.6). These objects taken from the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites are places where visitors frequently leave monetary donations to the chapel, although there is a neatly labeled box at the chapel’s entrance, with envelopes on top, designed for this purpose. I have watched visitors spend long moments before these objects, touching and caressing them with great care and expectation. During the ceremonies of September 11, 2011, Mascherino showed me a new gift to the chapel, apparently from a local resident, who had retrieved it from the plane’s impact site: a small piece of plastic moulding, framed and labeled “Piece of UAL Flight 93 recovered from Impact Site.”
The symbolic work at the chapel is not all being done inside the building. Behind the building stretches a garden containing a number of memorial objects. The large remnant from the structure of one of the World Trade Center towers that was already mentioned is, despite its size, not the centerpiece of the garden’s commemorative symbols. That role is reserved for the immense black marble block bearing the names and images of Flight 93’s crew and the four benches in matching black marble, arranged on a stone octagon, inscribed with the names of the passengers that frame it and the message “A Grateful Nation Will Forever Honor The Courage And Patriotism Of The Flight 93 Passengers.” This impressive structure was provided to the chapel by United Airlines. An iconic plane sits atop the monument, its nose tilted, inevitably in this symbolic universe, upward toward the heavens. The (p.129) garden is the scene for significant activity during the annual September 11 events. On the anniversary date, several large tent pavilions are erected on either side of the brick walkway and octagon on which the marble monument sits. Food, refreshments, and various site memorabilia are sold from these pavilions, and a number of tables are arranged for the convenience of visitors lunching at the chapel. The walkway and the octagon are on this day framed by the flags of all 50 American states. When crowds are too large to hold scheduled events in the chapel itself, they take place under one of the tent pavilions, which is equipped with a wooden stage. On September 11, 2011, on the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, the crowd was large enough that even the pavilion proved too small to hold them all.
An Ideal Typical 11th of September with the Flight 93 Congregation
The symbolic material at the chapel cannot mean anything unless people interact with it in specific ways, and the ways in which they interact with it change the meanings that emerge from the symbols. So we cannot stop at a description of the chapel in the absence of action; we need a description too of what takes place there when people come in search of these symbols. Cultural narratives do not exist as completely autonomous texts. There must be readers to decode their symbols, and those readers cannot do their interpretive work in isolation but must interact collectively at the sites where the elements of the texts present themselves. In this section, I will describe an ideal typical September 11 ceremony to show how meaning-makers come together there to reproduce and share the narratives about American society that are encoded in the physical structures at the chapel. (It was as I was doing final revisions of this manuscript that I learned of Mascherino’s death, and I decided for aesthetic reasons to keep this part of the narrative in the present tense.)
Mascherino begins the day’s events14 by briefly and informally addressing the congregation. He is eminently personable and charismatic, full of energy, wit, enthusiasm, and the sparkle of authenticity and authority, and his personality is an absolutely crucial aspect of the overall atmosphere and cultural life of the chapel. Mascherino’s charisma is, as is always the case, in some ways rehearsed and acted. Like (p.130) a trained dramatic actor, an effective religious leader must be practiced in delivering stock narrative lines with freshness and vigor, in reading audience contexts and adjusting to them, in improvising within the limits imposed by structures. I have heard Mascherino repeat phrases, anecdotes, or entire stories nearly verbatim in various presentations at the chapel, and yet each time his voice resonates with authenticity, and the emotional reaction of the audience is unmistakable. Erving Goffman describes the potential problems created by the cynical social actor, who is aware of the performative elements of a social script and becomes too self-conscious of the fact and thereby loses the quantity of credulity in the play necessary for successful drama.15 Mascherino is no cynical actor. He talks about September 11, 2001, as “the day that changed the destiny of man forever,” as the heroes of Flight 93 “showed us how to live.” The basic lesson they provided that day, he intones solemnly, was “never surrender.” He closes his brief introductory remark with a vibrant invocation of the civil religious hybrid essence of the chapel’s symbolic life: “We thank God for the blessings of freedom and democracy, … patriotism and faith, one nation under God, no such thing as separation of church and state, patriotism and faith are joined in our hearts.” The congregation listens respectfully, even dutifully.
Then the ceremony proper begins with the Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone stands and joins in the recitation, after which they are told to remain standing to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A woman who is sitting at the piano (she is part of a musical group that will soon present their talents to the gathered congregants) tries to accompany them, but does not know the chords and plays meandering, disjointed fragments for most of the song. The “Banner,” this piece of music that I would guess most Americans are so familiar with as to be capable of identifying it within a few seconds of the opening melody, thus sounds oddly mysterious, the sure incantation of the lyrics by the congregation mingling with the pianist’s largely unsuccessful effort to find the tune. Only as the song is drawing to a close does the pianist seem to solve the puzzle and manage to close in the right key. My sense of the performance, which I do not know to be shared by the congregants, is of clumsy, artless, but deeply heartfelt emotional intensity.
Mascherino then introduces the pianist and the group accompanying her on this day as the Senior Serenaders from the Johnstown Activity (p.131) Center in a nearby city. The group’s leader, a gray haired man perhaps in his late 60s or early 70s, leads them into Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” This song has, by its peculiar cultural history, become a kind of nationalist, conservative political anthem. It was first released in 1984 and was used in that same year at the Republican National Convention. It has enjoyed three separate periods of residence in the top five songs in the country, each of them neatly coinciding with distinct moments of martial nationalist effervescence in the country: first, during the Gulf War of 1991; next, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 2001; and finally, in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq War. Virtually the entire congregation sings along, especially loudly during the chorus: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free, and I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.”
Mascherino invites a woman to the pulpit. She sings a song titled “There She Stands,” written by a Christian singer-songwriter named Michael W. Smith. Smith performed the song at the 2004 Republican National Convention, where he spoke of visiting with then president Bush in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks and being asked by the president to write a song about the day. “There She Stands” is even more drenched in traditional patriotic imagery than the Greenwood song that preceded it. The lyrics describe the “clear blue skies” and shed blood of veterans represented in the colors and design of the American flag, which the patriotic faithful will raise at the risk of their own lives. As the woman sings key lines in the song, congregation members enthusiastically respond. After the line “someone will risk his life to raise her,” a hearty “That’s right!” is heard; a loud “Amen!” follows “there she stands.”
Mascherino retakes the pulpit and recounts the story of the establishing of the chapel. Though I have heard him tell this story numerous times, on each occasion his delivery is powerful and flawless. The dramatic skills of this former Catholic priest are formidable, and the effect on those gathered is visceral, detectable in a second visually and aurally. He builds the story in a crisp, taut crescendo, bringing his listeners on a thrilling journey, expertly adding colorful flourishes at just the proper instant. The room crackles with intensity as he concludes:
The owner of 84 Lumber … came with a check for $23,000. … [S]he looked at the plans, … and she said, “You know it would be nice if this (p.132) was finished by the first anniversary, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just do it for you instead” [loud applause spontaneously breaks out from the gathering], so they started on August the 31st, 2002, and ten days later the chapel was finished [a chorus of expressions of awe follows—one man exclaims “marvelous!”]. Everything you see was created in ten days.
Mascherino then indicates the “Shanksville salutes the heroes of Flight #93” sign standing on one of the gift tables behind the congregation seating area. He describes his impression of the tenor of the words written on that sign and elsewhere in the wake of the events of 9/11:
Have you been to the site? Have you seen the kinds of things that are written? What does it say? “God bless America, God bless the USA, God bless the families of Flight 93.” And the churches were filled right after September 11, remember? … [And critics say,] “But where are they now”? Here we are. Just because we take down the flags after the Fourth of July doesn’t mean patriotism is dead, and just because the people aren’t going to the churches doesn’t mean the faith is dead. They just don’t go to church, that’s all. … [F]rom the very start the response of America was an appeal to God. … [T]hat demonstration of faith is what this chapel honors, and the faith of the 40 heroes, after they found out they were part of this plot to destroy the United States, in one half hour, … 40 strangers got together and decided they were going to do something about it, and they did, they said the Lord’s Prayer and they prayed the 23rd Psalm, and they didn’t have time to say to each other “What church do you go to”? or “What religion are you”? but they prayed for courage and strength and wisdom and they rose up against the terrorists, and four minutes later the plane crashed in Shanksville, but in four minutes, 40 strangers changed the history of the world forever. What could 350 million Americans do, and we have the rest of our lives to do it? So the chapel is the sign of faith and it’s in honor of God and in memory of the holy heroes of Flight 93.
It is not asked in this gathering, and one would probably not expect it to be, what evidence shows that the passengers collectively prayed these two prayers. Lisa Jefferson, the Verizon operator who spoke at length with passenger Todd Beamer, recounted in her book about their conversation that the two of them had, at Beamer’s suggestion, prayed the (p.133) Lord’s Prayer together, but she makes no indication that others were involved. Some news sources reported that Beamer and Jefferson actually prayed the 23rd Psalm, or both that Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, but Jefferson does not mention the 23rd Psalm in her book. A story in the Greensboro News & Record from September 21, 2001, by a writer named Kerry Hall claimed crew member Sandra Bradshaw’s husband heard “three men … whispering the 23rd Psalm” during an eight-minute conversation with Bradshaw. It is not clear from the story how Bradshaw’s husband knew exactly how many passengers were involved. It is perhaps not wholly out of the realm of imagination that there is confusion here with the mention made of the 23rd Psalm by President Bush in his address to the nation on the evening of September 11, 2001. The fact that there is no good evidence to support the claim about the collective prayer, however, matters relatively little in the attempt to understand the considerable mythological power of such a claim in such a site.
At the conclusion of his story, Mascherino notes that one of the altar candles has stopped burning. He asks for a member of the congregation to come forward to light it as he holds it forth reverently. An elderly woman in the front row steps forward at his nod, and with genuine pleasure says, “Thank you, I’m so honored,” and does the deed.
The Senior Serenaders take the floor again, and the vibrant pianist Rose leads them in a stirring rendition of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The congregation settles back in after the boisterous musical interlude. A man referred to by Mascherino as “Reverend Tony” then steps to the podium and, to raucous laughter, says, “I think that’s a Baptist song, isn’t it?” Mascherino adds: “Southern Baptist!” Reverend Tony then refers to Mascherino’s earlier reference to the praying by passengers of Flight 93: “When Brother Al mentioned that they said the Lord’s Prayer on Flight 93, it’s like the puzzle pieces just fit right together, and God is in it.” He then performs a startling, emotionally vivid sung version of the Lord’s Prayer to the accompaniment of recorded music.
A performing group made of children, aged perhaps six to 12, from the Pittsburgh area called the North Star Kids then march into the chapel in exquisite precision and undertake a carefully prepared presentation on the passengers of Flight 93. One by one, the North Star Kids, wearing identical all-white outfits and bright blue vests (in some years, the vests are red), take the microphone and recite from memory (p.134) a biographical fragment on one of the passengers. Just prior to the start of the performance, their adult director says they have individually researched the information in their recitations. The collection of biographical summaries is enclosed in a lengthy version of the hymn “You Are Mine,” which is a narrative spoken by God Himself in which He tells the faithful that He has “called you each by name.” The Thunder Bell is tolled with each name, then the reciting child provides a brief narrative. The details are uniformly hagiographic, indeed, so carefully directed toward the moral perfection of the passengers as to appear to have been written by a single author writing with only that intention in mind:
He was a quiet, tender, and loving man. … [H]e loved his daughter and two sons. … [A]lways happy and had a big smile on his face. … [K]ind hearted and truthful. … [A]lways put his family before himself. … [L]oved his family very much. … [H]er two grandsons were her greatest joy in life. … [A]lways saw possibilities in everyone and everything. … [H]e would do anything to spend time with his daughter. … [H]ad a heart the size of Texas. … [V]ery devoted to helping other women. … [N]onjudgmental, easy-going, and polite. … [P]eople were struck by his friendliness and appreciation of nature. … [B]efore becoming a flight attendant she was a police officer but resigned because her heart couldn’t take the pain of the job. … [A] wonderful smile that always lit up the entire room. … [S]uccessful, outgoing, and optimistic. … [L]oved his two daughters and wife very much. … [A]irline worker who gave unused airline meals to homeless people.
While a few of the biographical notes veer into the humorous (“Donald Greene, … he could open a bag of potato chips, eat two or three, and then walk away”), the overwhelming bulk of this material reads as an emotionally heavy encomium of the saintly dead. In some years, the delivery by the children of these biographical sketches is almost unbearably laden with sadness. Children weep as they say their lines, and the effect is magnetic, as tears and sniffles erupt in the congregation in response. In 2011, one of the young boys was crying inconsolably throughout virtually the entire presentation, and the crowd seemed particularly moved.
We’re always blessed to have family members in the gathering, and today we have members of the family of LeRoy Homer, the copilot of Flight 93 and last year his dear mother, Ilsa, brought to you a special gift: the plane you see on display in a glass case in the corner of the chapel was brought last September 11 [awed exhalation from crowd] and on that occasion Ilsa said, “I have thought about this for five years, everything I own that belongs to my son is a precious treasure and I will part with none of it, but I bring this plane to you, the people of this chapel, who come here to honor my son and pray for him.” It’s a way of sharing his legacy with us—you see the planes were still hanging from his bedroom ceiling at home and when Ilsa handled the plane she wore rubber gloves and when she put the plane in the case and took off the gloves and gave them to me, she told me, “Father, if you ever have to handle the plane, please wear rubber gloves, my son’s fingerprints and his DNA as well are still on this plane. (see figure 4.7)
The Homer plane (which, note well, is ascending) is not the only object in the chapel intimately connected to someone who perished on the plane. There are several other such gifts by family members of personal items owned by passengers. Perhaps the most poignant is a dress made by her mother and worn by Honor Elizabeth Wainio on her third Christmas. It is enclosed in a case along with a card identifying it and a photo of Wainio as a child wearing the dress (figure 4.8). More recently, a rugby ball owned by Mark Bingham was donated to the chapel by Bingham’s father; it sits in a sealed case atop the case protecting (p.137) Homer’s airplane (figure 4.9). These objects are surrounded, in the cultural symbolism and discourse of the chapel, with an eerie energy that I will discuss shortly.
The ceremony moves on to another Christian spiritual, “God on the Mountain,” performed by the same woman who had earlier sung “There She Stands.” The lyrics depict the ease of faith in good times and the test it faces in hardship. The Senior Serenaders follow with two more spirituals. In “One Day at a Time,” the pianist provides some skillful gospel harmonizing with verses and choruses. “How Great Thou Art” follows, the pianist playing unsure chords, the whole chapel singing along, but frequently out of tune and uncertain of lyrics. The energy of the congregation seems to have waned slightly by the conclusion of the song, but Mascherino then makes his last address to the gathering and instantly brings them back to a frenzied emotional pitch. Throughout the day, he has frequently tied the meaning of the passenger’s act to a deeply mythological American politics of liberty. Their deed, in his discourse, was fundamentally an act of refusal to be told what to do and to instead assert the fundamental desire to live free or die that is the birthright of every American. “Liberty is not an automatic thing,” he tells the congregation, “and Shanksville is the place where heroes died so the
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder. “Thunder on the Mountain” is the message of Flight 93. … [A]s the plane crashed in the fields of Shanksville, it exploded and could be heard all across the hills, and shook the houses, and people heard it for miles around, and it was felt in Frost-burg Maryland, 35 miles from here it registered on the Richter scale, that’s how powerful is the message of Flight 93. Once we’ve understand it, it will explode upon our hearts. Never surrender. Never surrender. On September 11, 2001, the old world passed away forever and can never be restored the way it was. The old heavens and the old earth passed away and behold, God said, “I create all things anew and this time I give you 40 … new … stars” [spontaneous awed applause from the congregation]—“40 stars to guide you in the darkness of terror.”
“What did you expect to find in this field?” Mascherino goes on, in a phrase that perhaps might be at the origin of the misinterpretation reached by some visitors that the passengers rest in the graveyard adjacent to the chapel, “It’s just an empty field. Except in this field, heroes died.”
Later, as the ceremony reaches its conclusion, he introduces family members of Flight 93’s captain, Jason Dahl, who have come in midway through the proceedings and escaped his notice until that moment, and the congregation greets them with a round of applause. As we have already seen, family members and the objects closely attached to them are treated with a special reverence at the chapel. At one September 11 ceremony I attended, Deborah Borza, the mother of passenger Deora Bodley, was in attendance, and Mascherino introduced her at the conclusion of the proceedings. As the congregants dispersed, at least a dozen of them gathered around Borza, reverently shaking her hand and eagerly delivering their words of praise and love. The emotional intensity pouring out of these congregants was fairly palpable, (p.139) and Borza seemed equally energized by the interaction. The Senior Serenaders then close the ceremony with a rousing version of “God Bless America,” the pianist again uncertain of the chords until about midway through, then hammering them out resoundingly to conclude the day’s musical offerings.
Everyone in the building is standing as Mascherino calls their attention to the bell tower in the front of the chapel. “You can see the crash site from the roof,” he says, “and with the bell there is a mystical relation between the two sites.” In the early days of the chapel, he tells them, visitors would sometimes ask him, “What’s that sound?” as the bell tolled. His response: “It’s the voice of Flight 93.” As congregants prepare to leave the chapel, Mascherino encourages them to give the bell a ring as they exit to symbolize their own contribution to the moral project of the heroes of Flight 93.
Making Heroes in the Chapel: The Flag and Other Totems and the Hero’s Body
It is perhaps true that no description can be fully analytically innocent, but in the previous section I made a significant effort to avoid the deliberate application of interpretive tools to the extent that is possible. Now, let us try to ground the description in a broader theoretical framework.
Though, again, there are no dead bodies at the chapel, there is a powerful cultural narrative at work there that requires dead bodies, and dead bodies of a particular kind, as its symbolic fuel. Dead bodies and their representations, even if they are not the bodies of heroes, take on special symbolic importance in every human culture of which we know. Durkheim’s category of the sacred as that which is set apart, venerated, and protected by taboos from the profane is a helpful tool for interpreting the meanings the bodies of the dead take on in the actions of the living, especially when we understand the binary nature he assigned the category. Sacredness, in Durkheim’s reading, could be of two types: pure or impure. One of his students, Robert Hertz, who himself died at a mere 33 years of age on the World War I battlefield in 1915, provided a superb illustration of the content of these two types in a study of funereal rites in primitive Polynesian societies. The dead man or woman becomes a generically sacred object, that is, an entity separated from the (p.140) profane realm and imbued with an extraordinary energy or power, but the valence of this sacredness varies depending on the particular state of the dead body. The body in the process of putrefaction enters the state of impure sacrality, becoming a transgressive force that is to be feared, capable of defiling, even destroying anything with which it comes into contact. When decomposition is complete and the dead body is transformed into a skeleton, it becomes a pure sacred object, still possessing massive power, but now commanding reverence and respect, even requiring ingestion by family or clan members as a way of harnessing the sacred power. The meaning and structure of Polynesian funeral rites are intimately informed by this set of symbolic transformations in the substance of the dead individual, and while the specifics are limited to these kinds of societies, Hertz suggests, following Durkheim’s lead, that the framework of pure and impure sacrality is generalizable as a tool for analyzing the meanings of death.16
The deaths of the passengers and crew of Flight 93 differ from the more ordinary deaths Hertz describes in a number of important ways. Not least of these differences is the fact, which I noted in the previous chapter, that the act that resulted in the deaths of those on Flight 93 can be understood as an act of sacrifice. The institution of sacrifice brings other forces to bear on the dead body, but the duality of this sacred power is present there too in the most obvious way. Whether the sacrificed being is human or nonhuman animal, the act of putting it to death is an act that removes it from the realm of the profane definitively. In fact, the process of sacralization of the victim begins before the actual dealing of the death blow. A whole series of ritual processes (bathing, the expression of laudatory praise toward the victim, conferring of gifts of various types on the victim, including sexual favors and edible delicacies) take place “in the course of which the victim is progressively made divine.”17 But the sacred status of the sacrificial victim is complex and neither clearly pure nor impure, for the act of putting it to death is at once a sanctification and a sacrilege. The act of sacrifice, according to Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, “can tend to both good and evil” and “the victim represents death as well as life, illness as well as health, sin as well as virtue, falsity as well as truth.”18 It can perhaps even be said that sacrifice puts death to use in the reinvigoration of life.19
(p.141) The status of the sacrificial victims here is of great importance, as this is a case not of purely religious sacrifice, but of the death of the hero in an act of self-sacrifice. In religious sacrifice, the bloody body that brings grace to the community must be present. Congregants may even be required to ingest the flesh and the blood of the sacrificial victim, and the slain victim must be seen, adored, and feared in the physical form. Even in milder contemporary forms, the body of the sacrificed victim is present in cloaked symbolic form, e.g., the host at a Catholic Mass.
How then, if at all, is the hero’s lifeless body present in the cult of the Flight 93 heroes? It is present, in symbolic guise, in the form of the flag. In a study of the cultural workings of American nationalism, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle argue that American patriotism constitutes a civil religion based on the need for blood sacrifice. Borrowing terminology from Durkheim and Bellah, they present a framework for understanding American national identity as broadly comparable to the group identity formed in the totemic societies Durkheim studied. In the American national clan, the American flag is the totem representing the national group. More specifically, the flag is a representation not simply of the national entity, but also of the “the sacrificed body of the citizen.”20 The soldier killed in combat to defend the nation is literally incarnated in the folded American flag always given to the grieving widow and family, and such deaths are periodically required to replenish the vital energy of the totem. This all follows from axiomatic principles concerning religion, the purpose of which is “to organize killing energy” and “[t]he first principle of [which] is that only the deity may kill.” In civil religion, the deity is the state, but it has the same prerogative regarding killing and bestows its protection on all those who accept its status and protect it with violence.21 The “fuel,” the “generative heart of the totem myth” in this reading is sacrificial violence and “the borders that a group will defend with blood ritually produce and reproduce the nation.”22 This view might initially seem idiosyncratic or even extreme, but it is thoroughly rooted in a literature in the sociology of religion that traces religious belief and practice historically back to primitive sacrifice, the form of ritual exchange with the gods that centrally involves violence and death, indeed, that may even require the sacrificial death of the god himself.23 As Bruce Lincoln has argued, religion is (p.142) fundamentally concerned with the determination of the proper authorities to be turned to for the most serious of human acts:
Confronted with the disquieting reality of religious conflict, popular wisdom typically comforts itself with the ironist’s refrain: “How sad to see wars in the name of religion, when all religions preach peace.” However well-intentioned such sentiments may be, they manage to ignore the fact that all religions sanction, even enjoin the use of violence under certain circumstances, the definitions of which have proven conveniently elastic. In similar fashion, academic commentators often regard the religious side of conflicts … as relatively unimportant, or, alternatively, they deplore it as a debasement of all that is properly religious. … [T]heir analyses rest on an understanding of what constitutes religion that is simultaneously idealized and impoverished.24
Viewed from the theoretical perspective of Marvin and Ingle, the American flag becomes a central symbol for use in making meaning of acts of violence and death carried out under the aegis of war. As a totem, the flag thus arouses the greatest emotional attachment.
With this interpretive framework in place, we can look anew at the symbolic work going on at the chapel. The hero’s body is indeed symbolically present there (and at the temporary memorial as well) and it is engaged in abundant interaction with congregants.25 The basic meaning of the American flags present, in original and altered forms, is tied into the sacrificial death and transfiguration of the hero in this optic. The example that perhaps best illustrates the theoretical point is one I stumbled upon during one of the September 11 commemorations at
The Thunder Flag is composed of the colors symbolic of the four elements of Creation: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. The red is symbolic of Earth, native soil, America, God shed His grace on thee, land of heroes and land of liberty. White, symbolic of Water, the color of heroes, truth, purity, commitment. Blue, symbolic of Air, the skies of America, oh, beautiful, for spacious skies, and Stars, depicted here in white, but in the formal design. Gold, symbolic of Fire, the eternally brightly shining and infinite stars of the sky, as long as the stars endure, for that long shall (p.144) we remember the innocents who perished September 11, 2001. Four stars represent the four places of September 11.
Such symbolic attributions accrue not only to the Thunder Flag, but also to the national flag on which it is based. A document on flag protocol and symbolism published in the midst of World War II by the U.S. Marine Corps did not hesitate to engage in similar anthropological interpretation of the flag’s elements:
The star, a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial, and the stripe, symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun, have long been represented on the standards of nations, from the banners of the astral worshippers of ancient Egypt and Babylon and the 12-starred flag of the Spanish Conquistadors … to the present patterns of stars and stripes.26
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress, seeking to promote national pride and unity, passed a flag resolution in the following language: “Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
So Americans are “born under the flag,”27 in a deeply structured relation to that symbol and thereby to their imagined ancestral origins in the natural world. This is a useful interpretive frame for understanding flag symbolism at the chapel and at the temporary memorial site, including not only the formal, institutional elements of these two memorials, but much of the folk epigraphy and the gifts deposited as well, as so much of this material also bears the colors and the symbols of the flag. In each of these, the totem body of the hero finds genesis and rebirth. And what precisely do totems do, at the end of the day? They are tools for working out the omnipresent human business of opposition and integration, of creating, organizing, mobilizing, and reproducing the oppositional categories that are the very bases of human meaning-making, whether cosmos/chaos, Eros/Thanatos, or sacred/profane. The national totem eagle, surrounded by its 40 totem bodies/stars, in the red, white, and blue field above the altar (see figure 4.4), now makes better sense. Animals as totems are de rigueur in primitive societies, (p.145) but Marvin and Ingle note that modern polities embrace them too, and especially the martial, aggressive, carnivorous animals who deal in the death that is the morbid but vibrant fuel that is required to keep the national engine running.
If it appears too much to impute such a ghoulish symbolic concern for the destroyed bodies of sacrificed national heroes to such seemingly innocent processes, we might note that, in the books they have written about them, even family members of the dead heroes have turned their attention explicitly to grim, transgressive speculation on the bodies of their loved ones. Deena Burnett tells us she “wanted to know what was inside [Tom’s] casket.”28 Lyz Glick expresses the same dreadful curiosity and goes still further in her speculation about the fate of the physical essence of her husband.29 Among the objects she was given by the recovery team that were identified as her husband’s belongings was a datebook “covered with a fine brown dust” which “made [her] think of the dust from the African mummies when [she] studied anthropology at the University of Colorado. … Mummy dust.”30 In a short documentary film about the meeting of Flight 93 families with the actors who played their loved ones in the feature film United 93 that is included among the extras on the film DVD, Deborah Borza, mother of Deora Bodley, engages in some chilling black humor at the expense of the actress who played her daughter at their initial meeting. She asks her if she has met Deora yet, and after a look of abject horror briefly passes over the face of the actress, she brings out an urn filled with ashes of the remnants of her daughter’s body. She then tells a story of another urn of the dead woman’s ashes speaking to another family member, in a tone clearly intended as humorous but that touches unmistakably on the macabre.
Mascherino clearly understood the sepulchral nature of the totem myth. He sometimes distributed buttons to children visiting the chapel with their parents that read “Future Hero”—indeed, he gave one to my daughter, personalized with her own name, on one of our visits to Shanksville. He told me that he has seen tears come to the eyes of parents on seeing the words of the button, as the realization of the true meaning hits. That meaning is stunning: the child as potential future sacrifice to the grim symbolic needs of replenishing the blood totem of the flag. He also frequently connected the chapel’s symbolic work to the (p.146) American military in ways that point with some clarity to the interpretive accuracy of the theoretical vision of Marvin and Ingle. On September 11, 2011, while dedicating a monument placed at the chapel by the Somerset Garden Club as a “a tribute to the armed forces,” Mascherino asserted that the chapel had always been “intimately related” to “those who protect us from evil,” that is, the military, the job of which is, in Marvin and Ingle’s perspective, to create dead enemies, but even more importantly to create dead heroes who can be transformed by their deeds into the clan totem.
We can also now return to Homer’s model airplane, Bingham’s rugby ball, and Wainio’s Christmas dress equipped with this interpretive framework and perhaps make deeper sense of their meaning. The peculiar nature of the sacredness of these objects now becomes clearer. The DNA on them is detectable only with instruments of far more sensitivity than our eyes, ears, nose, or touch, and neither it nor any other merely material trace can serve as the explanatory root of the sacred power of the objects, but their status as the symbolic flesh of the martyred heroes, as sacred relics of the saintly dead, stands out resolutely. We might also note that they connect us to the childhoods of heroes who died as adults, and thereby invoke an ancient symbolic connection between the child and rebirth, or defeat of death.31 They take visitors back to the pristine moments of the pure, innocent youth of these three passengers and thereby conquer death, although only temporarily and although death is, as the twin of rebirth, also necessarily invoked by them. It is to ensure their status on the side of the pure sacred that they are drawn back to the pristine state of childhood. Like the flag totem, these objects from the childhoods of the heroes recall their sacrificed bodies, but in an apotheosized, symbolic form, rather than in the cruel realism of their obliterated, final state.
Far from being weakened by the tragic fate of the hero, according to Henri Hubert, hero mythologies almost depend on the hero’s crushing defeat, his physical destruction and even his failure to fully achieve his goals, for their narrative strength:
[W]hen the story turns too well, its hero remains a stranger to us, he does not touch us; he is not near or real enough to us. … [A] hero is complete only if he meets a tragic end and, more still, it seems, if the society (p.147) that sees itself in him has suffered over his disaster. It is astonishing that people take pleasure in commemorating their defeats. The retrospective suffering that they experience here is a source of intimate satisfactions.32
Perhaps, then, the symbolic work of the flag totem is not only in its martial, sacrificial value as the fuel for the reproduction of the bond between us and the barrier between us and the totem enemy, but also in its ability to speak to the fascinating desire people have to melancholically reflect on the morbid reality of death, even the deaths of their greatest heroes in the midst of struggles of monumental importance, and cultural defeat. The Flight 93 heroes, it would seem, are not solely Christian martyrs, or civil religious flag bodies, or tragic heroes in an essentially pre-Christian Greek mode; they might well be all of these at once.
Religious Denomination and Division: Civil Religion vs. Religion at the Chapel
Although the basic symbolic thrust of the chapel is clearly civil religious and nondenominational, religious denominational issues with deep roots in American culture are nonetheless present there. Mascherino was still a priest in the Roman Catholic Church when he began the journey toward creating the chapel. His explicit intention, however, was to give it a nondenominational, laissez-faire atmosphere. Frequently, he told me, people using the chapel for weddings, which take place there with some frequency, ask, “What are the rules?” and his response is, “Be respectful and do whatever you want to do.” His informal, charismatic manner in the chapel certainly serves as a practical endorsement of his nondenominational attitude. He once cheerfully told me of congregants bringing their dogs with them to Sunday service: “The dogs come in and they lay down on the floor and pray with everybody else.” While the body of the congregation is in constant flux and dominated during the events of the annual September 11 commemoration by first-time visitors and other relative newcomers, there is a core group of locals, perhaps numbering as many as 15 or 20, who use the chapel with significant frequency as their regular Sunday place of worship. This includes a mix of Catholics and various evangelical Protestant denominations. In addition to this core group, there are more intermittent but still regular local (p.148) visitors; Mascherino gave me the example of a family who have a summer home nearby and come regularly during the warm summer months but not at all the rest of the year.
There were, probably inevitably, some significant elements of Mascherino’s own religious position in evidence in the conduct of events at the chapel. Mascherino gave a Sunday Mass which is in most ways, in his words, a “right out of the book” Roman Catholic affair, though with the addition of some Leonine prayers at the end, including the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. He assured me that many in the regular congregation who attended this Mass are not Catholic and that this never seemed a significant issue. The prayers at the end of the Mass take their name from Pope Leo XII, though the bulk of these prayers (three Ave Marias, a Salve Regina, and a short prayer known as a collect) were added to the Mass by one of his predecessors, Pope Pius IX. They were commonly part of the Roman Mass from the mid 1880s until March 1965, when they were formally suppressed. In describing his Mass to me, Mascherino summarized the history of the Leonine additions, and in so doing clearly aligned himself in an important cultural struggle in the Roman church. The Leonine prayers, he told me, were instituted by Leo XII to “protect the Mass, as a safeguard from intrusion from external sources.” It was so protected until the Second Vatican Council, when “they did away with those prayers, and after they did away with the prayers, all these changes started coming into the Mass, and this is what Pope Benedict is trying to undo. He’s not trying to turn back the clock. He’s trying to reinsert those elements that were so precious in the Mass since the Latin Mass was certified and canonized.” In the early 1960s, the first change was made to the Mass since the Council of Trent, Mascherino went on, when the phrase “and her spouse Joseph” was inserted, and then the Second Vatican Council took place and many more changes followed. He spoke in the highest praise of the Lavabo, a prayer just prior to the consecration of the Host in the traditional Latin Mass, wherein the priest symbolically washes his hands in order to cleanse himself sufficiently of his own sin to be able to make the sacrifice. The prayer offered a powerful reflection on the terror of the priest himself, who, Mascherino told me, should feel daunted “as an unworthy minister daring to stand before God,” yet it too had been removed from the Mass. It should be reinstated, Mascherino (p.149) believed, and he invoked Benedict again in agreement when he told me he would be in favor of reinserting at least some Latin into the Mass. When he spoke of this with me, he characterized the Vatican II decision to eliminate Latin in palpably animated terms: “They said, ‘This is too cumbersome, too lofty.’” His expression alone made clear his deep disagreement. He then described a passage in Isaiah 6:5–7, wherein the relationship between the holiness of the words of prayer and the status of the human who recites them is made manifest: “The Lord said,33 ‘The words you speak are so precious and so holy, you are unworthy to speak them. Your mouth and your words are filthy from the day you are born. I will cauterize your mouth and your lips before you speak my word.’” There is a prayer, he concluded, in which one calls on this episode and asks “as you did the Prophet Isaiah, cleanse my lips so that I can speak your word. … [T]hat’s how precious this is.” His attitude during this conversation was clearly highly reverent with respect to the tradition of the Church and critical of a number of the Vatican II changes.
But alongside this essentially conservative Catholic attitude to doctrine and structure in the Mass is a much less doctrinal, even radically democratic and, in the view of the Church, borderline heretical attitude to some of the ritual of the Mass. Communion at the chapel is “free and open … to anybody who wishes to come.” “There are enough things in the Church,” Mascherino told me, “and in the world that keep people separated from God. … This is not approved by the Bishop, … [but] I give general absolution because at other Catholic churches they won’t let people go to communion.” He acknowledges that this flies in the face of Church dogma but hastens to say “what we are doing here is more important.” He constantly stressed to me in our conversations that the participatory rituals of, e.g., lighting the candle or ringing the Thunder Bell are the central aspect of congregational life at the chapel, and that they clearly distinguish the emotional energy of what happens there from what he views as the more prosaic, less intense experience visitors have at the temporary memorial. “Here, we have the plane and God,” he argued, “and what else do people need?” In a video on the chapel’s webpage, Mascherino told prospective visitors, “The chapel is not meant to be observed, like a museum. The chapel is lived.”
During the events at the chapel during the Fourth of July ceremony in 2009, I learned of some significant denominational conflicts and rifts that were simmering there. Mascherino related to me that several volunteers had recently left over disputes with him. Two were elderly born-again Christians who routinely spoke loudly during ceremonies and then took umbrage when they were asked to quiet down. Mascherino learned from other volunteers after the departure of these two that they had been saying disparaging things about Catholicism out of his ear-shot. They had repeatedly hinted to him of their hope that he would have a “change of heart,” eliminate the Catholic elements of the chapel (p.151) ceremonies, and be born again. During this same period, Mascherino learned that a third volunteer, a young member of a Christian motorcycle group who had been spending significant time at the chapel, was attempting to evangelize visitors, preaching to them a “Jesus Christ is the only way” message. Mascherino was visibly perturbed by this position when he related the story to me, reemphasizing the nondenominational nature of the chapel. This kind of fairly open Protestant anti-Catholic bigotry runs against the claims by some34 that religious conflict and division in contemporary America can no longer be understood by older discourses of denominational conflict but instead must be seen as struggles between orthodox and progressive religious groups of different denominations. Flight 93 Chapel theology and moral positioning is, on most issues, easily as orthodox as that of the evangelical Christianity of some of the groups who make use of the chapel, but this cultural political similarity does not obviate rifts of a more historical pedigree in American society.
The story of Mascherino’s conflict with his bishop, beginning with the latter’s discovery of the existence of the chapel and ultimately ending in Mascherino’s excommunication, offers further intriguing perspective on the chapel’s place in the American religious spectrum. Early in 2002, a local newspaper, reporting on Mascherino’s purchase of the property, contacted his bishop, Joseph V. Adamec, in order to confirm his standing as a Catholic priest. Mascherino explained to me that he had endeavored to keep his role as discrete as possible and had not even told the reporter he was a Catholic priest, but apparently others interviewed for the story had passed along that information and the reporter had sought confirmation. The story made the front page of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on March 10, 2002, identifying Mascherino as “a priest in good standing, unassigned … with the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown,” and within two weeks, Adamec had called Mascherino for an interview about the matter. The exchange went thus, in Mascherino’s account:
“What’s this about you buying a church?” “I didn’t buy a church, I bought a seed warehouse.” “No, you didn’t, you bought a church.” “It was a warehouse.” “It used to be a church, it was a warehouse, now it’s a church again, and it’s a nondenominational church too. So what are you going to be in all this?” “I’m going to be the chaplain.” “I will never understand (p.152) how a Catholic priest can be the chaplain to a non-denominational church.” “Maybe that’s because you’re too denominational.”
Adamec’s reaction to the exchange was predictably unenthusiastic, but the official move to excommunicate Mascherino did not begin immediately. Initially, the bishop moved to assign him to a parish at some distance from Shanksville; Mascherino believed the intention was to make it impossible for him to administer to the parish duties and maintain his hand in the Flight 93 Chapel at the same time. When he balked, the bishop delivered an ultimatum: take up the parish assignment or he would initiate the procedure to strip Mascherino of his priestly office and excommunicate him from the Church. Adamec publicly made clear his position in a local newspaper interview: “The chapel is Father Mascherino’s personal project. It seems his personal preference would be to be a priest in good standing, but to be [allowed] by the diocese to work in the chapel. That cannot be. … Father Mascherino has been quoted as saying he has not left the church or the pope. But by his own choice, he has left both.”35
In the final analysis, then, should we see the chapel as Catholic or nondenominational, and, in terms of the American culture wars, should it be placed on the orthodox or progressive side? Though much of the symbolic work at the chapel, as I have described above, resonates with a conservative cultural vision, it would not be incorrect to say that in terms of its denominational identity, it takes part in the same movement toward the postmodern, postdenominational positioning that is more characteristic of the progressive side of the culture war binary. Several recent events point to still more complication of the denominational face of the chapel and its founder. In 2006, Mascherino accepted an honorary doctor of divinity degree from an evangelical Protestant seminary, the Midwest Seminary for Bible Theology, after its founder participated in the September commemoration that year and reached out to Mascherino as a token of appreciation of his work at the chapel. In late 2009, the nearly 70-year-old Mascherino began to think hard about how the chapel would carry on after him in the wake of serious health issues. He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the vocal chords, and additional tumors were found in his esophagus and kidney. On September 27 of that year, a ceremony was conducted at the (p.153) chapel to consecrate Mascherino as a bishop in the Old Roman Catholic Church in North America (ORCCNA), an independent church formed in the early 20th century that is not in communion with the Roman Holy See or the Union of Utrecht that broke with Rome over the doctrine of papal infallibility. Archbishop Joseph Vellone, the leader of this renegade church’s California division, had attended several memorial services at the chapel, and this impressed Vellone sufficiently to make the decision to consecrate Mascherino.36
However, very shortly after this ceremony took place, Mascherino had a change of heart and broke with the ORCCNA. In October of the same year, he was incardinated in the Catholic Church of the East (CCE) and thereby came under the jurisdiction of CCE Archbishop Ramzi Musallam, Mascherino’s close friend. The Catholic Church of the East is a Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite that is in full communion with Rome. Mascherino underwent treatment for his cancer and by late 2010 was nearly back to full strength, but he still felt the pressing need to plan for the chapel’s continuity after his death. At the September 11, 2010, commemoration event, he announced plans for the building of a larger facility, perhaps in another location, with the creation of a legal foundation with an executive board and the aid of an architect who drew up a proposal for the new construction.37 The proposal described about $10 million in expenditures that would be necessary for the construction, and it was not clear how the money could be raised. These tentative plans were dropped, however, when Macherino’s health again deteriorated. He finally decided to leave the chapel in possession of his new church, the Catholic Church of the East, with Archbishop Ramzi Musallam as CEO and director. Mascherino died, in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church that had originally ordained him in 1976, on February 15, 2013.
During Mascherino’s time as chapel director, there emerged another important religious presence at the chapel. This is the Christian Motorcyclists Association (CMA), an evangelical Christian group with chapters throughout the U.S. and internationally that endeavors to combine their evangelizing activity with their identities as motorcycle aficionados to minister to individuals and communities one might expect to be rather distant from the message of Christian repentance. CMA members frequently volunteer at the chapel, especially around the time of the (p.154) annual commemoration on September 11, and every year at that time, significant numbers of the CMA gather there for specific events they have organized with Mascherino’s approval and assistance. The week before the 11th, they hold an Annual Bikers’ Patriotic Day Convergence at the site. Motorcycle groups frequent the temporary memorial as well, and the peculiar mixture of Christian faith, patriotic fervor, and subcultural identity these groups demonstrate makes them a fascinating piece of the Flight 93 landscape. In an ethnography of a similar group, the Black Sheep Harley-Davidson for Christ (HDFC) Motorcycle Ministry in California, Doreen Anderson-Facile examined the obvious conflict in identity positions occupied by the Christian motorcyclist. How is it possible for a member of a subculture with such clear ties to transgression and rebellion against moral authority to claim Christian belief, and often quite conservative, even fundamentalist evangelical belief, and integrate these two identities into a coherent self? The image of the outlaw biker has been somewhat tamed, beginning in the late 1980s when Harley-Davidson “capitalized on the romanticized image of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider” to attract “middle-aged professionals.”38 The outlaw biker image was turned into a commodity to be sold to middle-class bike aficionados so they could sip at the outlaw cup, however superficially and inauthentically. The members of the Black Sheep HDFC are in fact far from the biker outlaw in the Hell’s Angels tradition; they are actually part of a large group of contemporary more or less middle-class bikers. Anderson-Facile found her biker sample to be Republican Party–identified and politically conservative,39 and this seems the case for most of the CMA members I have spoken with at the chapel. The Christian biker juggles the two identities strategically:
In the secular world, the Black Sheep member is able to hide behind the biker costume and bike if they are rejected because they are a Christian. In the biker world, if the Black Sheep member is not accepted as a biker, … they are able to hide behind the role of Christian. … It is as if these dueling identities are a safety net to secure acceptance or at least some degree of respect in any given situation.40
The subculture of bikers has long occupied a seemingly contradictory position in American cultural politics. During the 1960s, as powerfully (p.155) visually evident in documentaries of the period such as that depicting the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont concert in 1969, they were outsiders vis-à-vis mainstream American culture, just as the hippies were, but largely intolerant of the left cultural politics of the hippies. They showed undisguised contempt for countercultural bending of traditional gender roles, pursued alcoholic excesses not for the expansion of consciousness but to show how rough and macho they could be, and vehemently and violently defended their stake in the personal, material property of their bikes (as the hippie crowd at the Stones’ Altamont show learned to their dismay). Anderson-Facile suggests the Christian biker desires to sit somewhere between the identity positions “Christian” and “secular,”41 and, in this framework, the presence of the CMA at the chapel makes a certain existential sense. Here, they find a space where they can be right-wing patriots and rebels, of a certain variety at least, at one and the same time, for the Flight 93 site that receives sponsorship from “respectable” institutions, and most importantly from the government (the congenital enemy of the biker outlaw), is not the chapel, but the national memorial at the crash site. It is in a certain sense appropriate that the CMA, in its complex and even contradictory identity in the field of American religious and political culture, found a home at the chapel, which has had its own complicated position in that same field.
(2.) Mascherino was unwavering in emphasizing a distinction between the commemorative effort at the temporary memorial and his own work at the chapel. He speculated frequently on the likely incomprehension, or even hostility, that Park Service personnel would feel about the free mingling of church and state at the chapel; occasionally, he even suggested to me that perhaps Ambassadors at the temporary memorial were actively discouraging visitors from coming to the chapel. I saw no evidence of such deliberate antagonism to the chapel among the Ambassadors, though, as I describe in chapter five, it was clear that at least some Park Service officials and staff were just as eager to separate their efforts from Mascherino’s as he was.
(p.297) (3.) The bald eagle became the emblem of the U.S. in 1782.
(4.) Exodus 19:5–6, New American Bible.
(5.) Exodus 19:9–11.
(6.) Exodus 19:16–20.
(7.) Exodus 19:4.
(14.) This section is a composite ethnographic summary of several different commemorative events that took place at the chapel on September 11 and other dates between 2006 and 2011. Under Mascherino, much of the September 11 ceremony was repeated from year to year, with relatively slight variation.
(25.) We might note too that at least one of the Flight 93 passengers, Thomas Burnett Jr., was given a military funeral, although he was not a member of the armed forces, and his wife was presented with the flag totem that all families of soldiers killed in combat receive.
(26.) “How To Respect and Display Our Flag,” Camden, NJ: Alpha Litho, 1942.
(33.) Mascherino’s recollection of the passage was inexact, as Yahweh is not the speaker here. It is Isaiah who bemoans his unworthiness to gaze on the Lord, and one of the Lord’s seraphs cauterizes his lips.
(35.) Mary Pickels, “Flight 93 Memorial Chapel Founder Gets Higher Calling,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 26, 2009.
(37.) Mary Pickels, “Plans to Move Flight 93’s Somerset Chapel on View Today,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 11, 2010.