The Sounds of Silence: Foreknowledge, Miracles, Suppressed Narratives, and Terrorism-What Not Telling Might Tell Us

By Goldstein, Diane E. | Western Folklore, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Sounds of Silence: Foreknowledge, Miracles, Suppressed Narratives, and Terrorism-What Not Telling Might Tell Us


Goldstein, Diane E., Western Folklore


ABSTRACT

Focusing on the recurring theme of foreknowledge, this article explores issues of selfcensorship, narrative suppression, and untellability in rumours and legends that circulated in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, in reaction to the events of September 11th. The research presented here explores the identification of importance. of, problems with, and analysis of stories not told, particularly in the context of intense fear and suspicion.

KEYWORDS: 9/11, conspiracy theory, contemporary legend, foreknowledge, rumor

On October 14th, 2001 , shortly after the first American military strikes on Afghanistan, novelist Barbara Kingsolver published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled "No Glory in Unjust War on the Weak." She wrote:

I cannot find the glory in this day. ... I am going to keep pleading against this madness. I'll get scolded for it, I know. I've already been called every name in the Rush Limbaugh handbook: traitor, sinner, naive, liberal, peacenik, winner. I'm told I am dangerous because I might get in the way of this holy project we've undertaken to keep dropping heavy objects from the sky until we've wiped out every last person who could potentially hate us. Some people are praying for my immortal soul, and some have offered to buy me a one-way ticket out of the country to anywhere. I accept these gifts with a gratitude equal in measure to the spirit of generosity in which they were offered. People threaten vaguely, she wouldn't feel this way if her child had died in the war! (I feel this way precisely because I can imagine that horror.)

I begin with this excerpt from Kingsolver's column, not only because of its overt anti-war message, nor because of its quickly achieved status as one of the most forwarded opinion pieces on the war, but because it is framed within a dialogue of censorship. As Kingsolver suggests, part of the censorship problem is the propaganda machine that makes it unpatriotic to be opposed to war, but the silences left in the wake of September 11th are numerous and complex, and the censorship is both external and internal. War, terror and disaster, like so many other aspects of life, create a context for untellable narratives - a space where we are as likely to censor ourselves as we are to speak. This paper explores issues of self-censorship, narrative suppression, and untellability through an exploration of rumours and legends that circulated in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, in reaction to the events of September 11th. While the ground for this analysis features stories told about those events, the real focus of this article is on the identification of, importance of, problems with, and analysis of stories not told, particularly in the context of intense fear and suspicion. Using Labov and Waletsky's notion of tellability (1967), the inverse concept of untellability, and more recent work on the use of master narratives to fill interstitial gaps in the un-narratable (Wycoff 1996; Lawless 2001; Shuman and Bohmer 2004), this paper explores present and absent themes, contrasting September 1 1th rumours with other similar narratives of war and disaster.1

Times of domestic or international crisis typically spark a proliferation of contemporary legends and rumours. During World War II, narrative tradition got so out of hand that the United States government was forced to create rumour management clinics to prevent inflammatory stories from gaining credibility (Turner 1993). Similarly, terrorist rumours surfaced almost immediately on September 11th, and folklorists were there to collect them. Within a few days the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress put out a quick "call for participation" asking that "the nation's folklorists and ethnographers collect, record, and document America's reactions.2 The Library of Congress explained in that call the incredible value of a similar collection created sixty years earlier by Alan Lomax who, immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, sent a telegram to fieldworkers in ten different localities across the United States asking them to collect "man-on-the-street" reactions of ordinary citizens to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States. …

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