Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Girl receives letter from her disappeared Afghani boyfriend saying terrorists are going to strike at U.S. malls on Halloween.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2001]
Origins: The above-quoted e-mail began circulating on
Whatever the gal who wrote the
An anonymous internet electronic-mailA public information officer at the FBI's National Press Office told us that they've fielded many phone calls about this message, they've checked it out, and they have received no letter of warning from a girl with an Afghan boyfriend.
The FBI has conducted an inquiry into the source of this
This story fits neatly into the genre of a number of similar rumors about helped terrorists or compassionate Arabs who are moved to offer specific warnings about upcoming attacks, and thus should most likely be dismissed as just more of the same. ("Helped terrorists" of lore offer such heads up by way of thanks for a kindness done them. "Compassionate Arabs" of rumor offer such intelligence to favored neighbors, usually just before they themselves pack up and leave in the middle of the night. Dozens, if not hundreds, of versions of such tales abound, each told by someone who swears he heard it from someone who knows the person who had the encounter.) Such snippets of lore swing on the belief that those who have foreknowledge of destruction to come would jeopardize the outcome of those events by warning others. Terrorists may very well form friendships among the folk they've temporarily taken on the coloration of, but friendships stop at the line where they might interfere with operations. To think otherwise is to surrender to a form of naïveté that can only be characterized as appallingly wishful
The rumor has traveled as far and as quickly as it has because one special part of it speaks very strongly to what we deeply want to believe: that there is a way to protect ourselves from terrorism. "Stay out of the malls on Halloween," says this backfence whisper, "because we know they're going to attack then and there." By implication, other activities on the 31st — a movie, perhaps, or a nice dinner out — will be perfectly safe because the bad guys are going after malls. Likewise, the warning implies that malls on any day other than the 31st will be terrorist-free. For the cost of avoiding one venue on one day, a lot of comforting false security is provided to a populace desperate for it.
The horrible truth about terrorists is they can strike in any place at any time. That's too large and too borderless a concept for most of us to be able to accept, so we make up rumors about a particular when and where that can be defended against because that reduces the menace to something that can be grasped, understood, and countered. Power (the power to avoid, in this case) is thus returned to a people left feeling unspeakably helpless in the face of fearsome and deadly unpredictability.
As for the specifics of this particular
For instance, this device of one realized event bestowing credibility on a prediction made about a second event yet to occur appears in a rumor from World
In the wake of the anxiety rumors that swept the nation immediately after Pearl Harbor came a pipe-dream rumor which was undoubtedly the most popular of all: the weird tale of the man who picked up a strange woman in his car. Arriving at her destination, his passenger allegedly offered to pay the man for the gas he had used. But the man refused to accept the money, so the woman offered to tell his fortune. And, as the rumor went, mysteriously she told him, "There will be a dead body in your car before you get home, and Hitler will be dead in six months." Supposedly, then, on the way home the man had seen a serious automobile wreck and had taken one of the victims into his car to rush him to the hospital. But the injured person diedAnother version of the "Mall-o-ween" rumor surfaced shortly after the first.
Although this pipe dream sounds foolish, it nevertheless spread throughout the country rapidly. It appeared in widely circulated gossip columns, and a lot of Americans took it seriously. Yet this same rumor, in the setting of the period, to be sure, had appeared in every military conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. And it has been said that the rumor probably goes back into the Middle Ages.
My friend Colleen arrived for a facial when FBI agents were leaving Murad on Sunday,The case against this rumor about terrorist attacks on malls is a fairly solid one — the theme is both well known in the realm of folklore, and terrorists do not tip plans to outsiders. Moreover, the FBI says it hasn't received such a letter as the
"I have to go away and will not be able to see you again. Please do me a favor and do not fly in any planes on
Don't know about you but I live across the street from a shopping mall, and my
Halloween may not be so Happy.
Please send this to anyone that you know. Let's hope this isn't for real, but since it was actually left in a letter to a loved one from one of the people involved in the attacks of
Yet the author of the first
Will she through further conversations with her friend discover that she's not as close to the source of the rumor as she thought? Will her friend's friend turn out to be someone much farther removed from the "warning" than the usual two links in the "friend of a friend" (FOAF) chain of contemporary lore? That is for the future to reveal.
That one person believes a rumor does not make the rumor true, of course. But that we can trace this rumor to the person who started the
Barbara "international intrigue" Mikkelson
Last updated: 14 March 2008
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