Skip to site content

Urban Legends: The Terrorist Attacks

“You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars,” reads Matthew 24:6.

Rumors of wars abound these days as urban legends.
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have sparked over 30 stories about the tragedy.
With so many stories, Web sites tracking urban legends have lumped them into a new genre.
“Click here for a page of links covering rumors about the terrorist attacks on the USA,” beckons the Urban Legends Reference Pages (www.snopes2.com).
TruthOrFiction.com explains: “Because of all the eRumors about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we now have a ‘subject’ category … titled ‘Attack on America.'”
And About.com now offers, “Rumor Watch: Terrorist Attacks on U.S.”
The stories range from demonic heads in crash clouds to economic fallout.
Heard that CNN used old footage to imply Palestinians rejoiced at news of the attacks? That isn’t true.
The five firefighters who survived in an SUV under the collapsed World Trade Center? That isn’t true either, even though Associated Press reported it.
Got an e-mail that asks you to light candles tonight for a special satellite photo? Not true.
What about Nostradamus’ prediction of the World Trade Center attack? Again, false.
On the other hand, some “urban legends” turn out to be true.
For example, the Urban Legends References Pages post the comments made by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson condemning gays and others for the attacks. The “status” of their comments: true.
Received an e-mail about the Canadian broadcaster defending the United States? True. Commentator Gordon Sinclair passionately defended America in 1973, a defense which comforts Americans in 2001. But beware the story’s details; altered versions circulate too.
Urban legend expert Jan Harold Brunvand claimed three elements keep urban legends alive: story appeal, believability and a message.
“Urban legends gratify our desire to know about and to try to understand bizarre, frightening, and potentially dangerous or embarrassing events that may have happened,” Brunvand wrote in “New Legends for Old.”
The Sept. 11 attack thus makes plentiful grist for the rumor mill.
For example, one legend holds that a man, high in one of the World Trade Center towers, “rode” falling debris safely to street level.
“Not all rumors hurriedly spread in the wake of a tragedy are exaggerations of the horror that was or vocalizations of fears of things potentially to come,” wrote Barbara Mikkelson at the Urban Legends Reference Pages. “Some are expressions of hope.”
“The ‘building surfer’ is one such rumor in that it celebrates the miraculous survival of an otherwise doomed man and thus by implication imparts hope that others too will have been found to have lived through the destruction,” she continued.
These legends aren’t told for amusement. Look at them critically, and you’ll find more than legends.
You’ll find citizens grasping for values and beliefs during a national crisis.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.