Angel Patriots

The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America

352 pages

30 b/w photographs

March, 2015

ISBN: 9781479868452



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Alexander T. Riley is Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University. His previous books include Godless Intellectuals?: The Intellectual Pursuit of the Sacred Reinvented and Impure Play: Sacredness, Transgression, and the Tragic in Popular Culture.

All books by Alexander T. Riley

When United Flight 93, the fourth plane hijacked in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the gash it left in the ground became a national site of mourning. The flight’s 40 passengers became a media obsession, and countless books, movies, and articles told the tale of their heroic fight to band together and sacrifice their lives to stop Flight 93 from becoming a weapon of terror.  In Angel Patriots, Alexander Riley argues that by memorializing these individuals as patriots, we have woven them into much larger story of our nation—an existing web of narratives, values, dramatic frameworks, and cultural characters about what it means to be truly American.           
Riley examines the symbolic impact and role of the Flight 93 disaster in the nation’s collective consciousness, delving into the spontaneous memorial efforts that blossomed in Shanksville immediately after the news of the crash spread; the ad-hoc sites honoring the victims that in time emerged, such as a Parks Department-maintained memorial close to the crash site and a Flight 93 Chapel created by a local Catholic priest; and finally, the creation of an official, permanent crash monument in Shanksville like those built for past American wars. Riley also analyzes the cultural narratives that evolved in films and in books around the events on the day of the crash and the lives and deaths of its “angel patriot” passengers, uncovering how these representations of the event reflect the myth of the authentic American nation—one that Americans believed was gravely threatened in the September 11 attacks. A profound and thought-provoking study, Angel Patriots unveils how, in the wake of 9/11, America mourned much more than the loss of life.


  • "Riley convincingly demonstrates that myth and symbol remain at the core of modern American life. At once extended field research, imaginative media ethnography, and elegant master class in cultural theory, Angel Patriots is a profound and also disturbing book."

    —Jeffrey Alexander, author of Trauma: A Social Theory

  • Angel Patriots is essential reading for anyone interested in American national identity or collective memory. Alexander Riley’s vivid and well-informed account of how Flight 93 has been remembered captures the myth-making process in action, and his analysis of sacred totems, redemptive heroes, and sacrificial ritual reinvigorates our understanding of civil religion.”

    —Lyn Spillman, author, Nation and Commemoration: Creating National Identity in the United States and Australia

  • “Deploying the very best kind of cultural analysis, Alexander T. Riley vividly illustrates what the narration of United Flight 93 tells us about the contemporary American condition and more broadly provides important insights into the nature of Western societies today. Angel Patriots deserves to become a classic text in the field.”

    —Brad West, author, Re-enchanting Nationalisms: Rituals and Remembrances in a Postmodern Age

  •  "A profound and thought-provoking study, Angel Patriots unveils how, in the wake of 9/11, America mourned much more than the loss of life."

    Daily American

  • "Excellent material on national identity and cultural analysis.  Clear and accessible discussion of myth and symbol.”


  • “Riley’s sophisticated interpretation of the myths surrounding Flight 93, coupled with his strong research at the chapel and memorial sites, make this an easy book to recommend…. [T]his is an excellent book for scholars wishing to learn about the memorialization of Flight 93.”

    The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

  • “Alexander Riley’s Angel Patriots is an engaging account of the cultural processes through which the meanings, narratives, and memory of United Flight 93 are constructed and reconstructed.”

    Sociology of Religion