Communication, Liminality, and Hope: The September 11th Missing Person Posters

Article excerpt

"Which Hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast."

Hebrews: 19:6

The Bible, KJV

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC), the cacophony of events overtaxed official agencies of relief, making it literally impossible for clear communication concerning who escaped from the towers and who did not. Spectators who watched the towers crumble initially received sketchy news regarding the status of survivors. False rumors spread that "thousands" of victims lay unconscious and unidentified in hospital beds and that hundreds of others were walking around the city dazed or suffering from amnesia. As it turned out, few of the missing persons were rescued from the carnage. However, without accurate information to demonstrate for sure what had happened to their loved ones, many relatives and friends assumed their loved ones were still alive. They composed Missing Person Posters (MPPs) and displayed them prominently on utility polls, walls, cars, fences, and the entrances to subways. The MPPs appeared first around Ground Zero and slowly radiated out over all of Manhattan and even to distant city boroughs. They clustered around key areas of the city, such as the New York City Armory building and Bellevue and St. Vincent's hospitals. Places such as Bellevue, located on the lower east side of Manhattan, began receiving victims of the attack. As family and friends arrived at Bellevue to look for their loved ones, they showed up with MPPs in hand. A large blue construction wall outside quickly became covered with the posters. In just a matter of hours, hospital employee Evelyn Borges placed several banners at the top of the wall naming it the "Wall of Prayers." The "Wall" quickly grew to several hundred feet in length, with thousands of posters hung over its surface (see Figure 1). The posters also clustered around popular eating and drinking establishments frequented by some of the missing. When the Armory was set up as a central location for information and filing paperwork for missing people, its wails were covered with posters just like the construction wall outside Bellevue. Wherever the posters were clustered, people began to leave flowers, candles, stuffed animals, letters, notes, poems, gifts, and other memorial paraphernalia. These were places where many people who gathered to hang posters inquired of anyone around them, "Have you seen my uncle, husband, brother, sister, or wife?" [1]

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The MPPs elicited a number of powerful responses. As one eyewitness said, "The posters were incredibly striking because of the photographs used and the level of content used to describe each person. The posters made you feel a part of their life. The photographs involving daily activities made you feel that this person was very much alive, a wonderful person who could not possibly have been taken from this planet before their time." [2] Yet another eyewitness wrote of his reaction: "I wept on the train, reading the daily profiles of the missing, the ones who loved salsa music or tinkering with motorcycles or who lived for nephews. I knew none of the missing but they were all exactly like the people with whom I had lived and worked my whole life" (quoted in Wallace, 2001). And Grider (2002), writing about the lasting impact of the shrines that grew up around Ground Zero, said of the photographs attached to the MPPs that they brought "these 'missing' people together randomly, much as they were in life and ultimately at the moment of their deaths. As long as the pictures are on view, the people are not ... lost."

In this paper, we argue that the MPPs represent a powerful rhetorical response to a traumatic and in some ways unprecedented situation. This response transformed the death of loved ones from a reality or future certainty into a probability made possible by the searchers' desire, emotions, or imagination. …