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9/11 Spawns Myths

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Urban legends have been around as long as time itself, it seems. From the bogeyman to the pig-faced woman to the vanishing hitchhiker, urban legends and fables have been an important part of history. “It does seem to be the case that we're naturally inclined to interpret the world in narrative terms,” explains David Emery, famous debunker of urban legends, “in spite of how few events in real life really unfold in a manner resembling a coherent storyline. Maybe this is a psychological survival tactic. After all, there are a lot of horrifying, absurd, incomprehensible things we have to reckon with during this short sojourn on earth. Perhaps one of the ways we cope and stay "sane" is by interpreting life as a story, or a collection of stories, with ourselves as the protagonists.”

It’s hardly surprising then, that in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the Internet (our second-most favored gossip exchange) was flooded with rumors, hoaxes and innuendos regarding the events of that day and those that followed. Does that mean you should automatically disregard anything in your email inbox relating to September 11th? Not at all, ‘cause if you do, you’ll miss out on some incredible, and best of all, true stories.

Not that all of them are truthful, of course. Take the email that encourages readers to boycott gum arabic, a major ingredient in beverages and pharmaceuticals, because Al-Queda leader Osama bin Laden was said to be a primary owner of a company based in Sudan that “produces this stuff. We basically have been stuffing money in his pockets!” the email avers. “Do the world a favor,” the email continues, “start reading the labels of products you buy, and DON'T BUY ANYTHING WITH GUM ARABIC IN IT. Yes girls, that means NO MORE DIET SODAS.”

True story? Not really. Although bin Laden did, at one time, own an interest in a Sudanese company that produced gum arabic, he divested himself of those holdings in 1996 when Sudan forced him out of their country. The email was so popular, however, the U.S. State Department issued a press release stating there was “no evidence” that bin Laden is currently involved in the gum arabic trade. Not surprisingly, soda companies were also quick to disavow any connection with the FBI’s newest “most wanted criminal.”

Another example of the hoaxes that spread so quickly via email was the so-called “tourist photo.” In this email, we received a photograph showing a hapless tourist on top of the World Trade Center’s observation deck, with an approaching airplane in the background. “Attached is a picture that was taken of a tourist atop the World Trade Center Tower, the first to be struck by a terrorist attack. This camera was found but the subject in the picture had not yet been located... Please share this...” An eerie photo, but close observers realized quickly it was a fake,

 “If you look closely at the picture you can just make out a panoramic view of Midtown Manhattan behind the blissfully unaware subject, indicating that the photographer is facing north. Only one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on September 11 approached from that direction: the first, American Airlines Flight #11, which struck the north tower (One World Trade) at 8:45a.m.  The trouble is, the north tower had no rooftop observation deck such as pictured here. Even if it had, it wouldn't have been open to tourists at that hour.” So wrote Emery is his analysis.

But it’s the true stories that are most amazing, and deserve permanent placement in our history.

Like the face of Satan which appeared in the smoke of a photo of the burning World Trade Center. “The Associated Press has confirmed that the photo is real and not retouched in any way,” reported the Saginaw News. “The picture, shot by an Associated Press photographer, captured the features of a seemingly demonic face -- eyes, nose, mouth, beard and horns -- as it emerged from the billowing smoke…”

Both the photographer and the Associated Press have denied retouching the photo in any way.

Another true urban legend involved President George Bush’s statement regarding his plans for the “war” on Osama bin Laden. “Hey guys,” the email read, “You probably heard President Bush when he said this on TV.. but in case you didn't. I thought it was hilarious. He said," I'm gonna be patient, about this thing, and not go firing a 2 million dollar missile at a 10 dollar tent just to hit a camel in the butt".”

True enough, as Bush’s exact quote (as reported in Newsweek) was, “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive." I’m not a fan of Bush’s rhetorical style and his tendency to “cowboy” his off-the-cuff remarks, but this one was a gem.

Another example of “great speeches” in the wake of September 11th is attributed to a United Airlines pilot on one of the first flights after the tragedies. “If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together. Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them,” said the pilot of United Flight 564. True story.

Not all the true stories are great, however. Consider the email regarding Starbucks treatment of rescue workers. “EMS workers seeking water to aid victims of the World Trade Center attack were charged full price for it by a local Starbucks,” an email claimed. Status? That was true as well. Starbucks later apologized.

If you haven’t seen the “face of Satan” or the “innocent tourist” photographs, log on to Emery's Urban Legends website  and enter “Sept. 11” in the search box. And before you hit the forward button on any kind of emailed information, check it out first with Emery to find out if it’s true or false.


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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

urban legends, 9/11, myths, diet soda, gum arabic

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