To mark twenty years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, recent media have been saturated with commemorations, recollections, and reflections. “9/11 changed everything” is a common refrain, with the event serving to divide recent history to “before” and “after.” Much is made of the large number of people who were not old enough to remember the horror and fear of that day, seen as a defining moment of a generation. The trauma of loss experienced by so many individuals is a focus, along with the persistent health problems that first responders are still experiencing two decades on. Mostly, these reflections zero in the emotional, personal, and individual. James Poniewozik, a New York Times television critic, reviews this year’s coverage and finds that the documentaries this year are very much like the coverage produced at the ten-year mark:
There are wrenching interviews with survivors and with those whose loved ones died; uplifting stories of rescues and agonizing stories of those who perished in the attempt; footage of the conflagration, chaos and shock, as seen on morning newscasts and in the ash-blanketed streets; images of the first responders and volunteers digging through wreckage.
That critic asks, “Is 9/11 a day or is it an era?” and laments the lack of films that look beyond the day. Among those that do, the best is Spike Lee’s four-part documentary NYC Epicenters: 9/11 2021½, which combines individual New Yorkers’ experiences with criticism of government messaging from George W. Bush to Donald Trump (here called “President Agent Orange”). But even that documentary treats 9/11 as a beginning point and doesn’t open the question of what came before.
What 9/11 unleashed
It’s easy to feel the “before” and “after” of 9/11 for those who remember it. It did seem to “change everything,” setting off consequences that had a profound impact, well beyond the initial losses of life. Almost immediately Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, with Representative Barbara Lee casting the sole no vote. Almost a million people died as a direct result of the forever wars launched in 9/11’s wake by the Bush/Cheney administration. In October 2001, the U.S. passed the USA Patriot Act, giving government broad powers of surveillance and detention.
Furthermore, Islamophobia spiked immediately. Four incidents of anti-Muslim violence were reported in the four months before 9/11; in the four months after, 96 such incidents were reported. After 9/11, Islamophobia became a guiding principle of official policy (Nguyen 2005), with an immediate round-up and detention of 1,200 Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men; FBI visits to 11,000 more; and a registration system requiring men from certain countries to register with the government — almost 300,000. Surveillance of the Muslim population has spiked, especially in New York City, where the Police Department has spent more than $3 billion since 2006 on license-plate readers, facial recognition software, mobile surveillance vans that have X-ray capabilities, etc. “Flying while Muslim” became a difficult, sometimes humiliating, experience.
9/11 ushered in the era of internet-propelled conspiracy theories, starting with the 9/11 “Truthers,” whose film Loose Change was the internet’s first viral video. Even Spike Lee’s documentary about 9/11 originally gave credence to these theories. In the years after, this path merged with Islamophobia in the “Birther” conspiracy and the Islamophobic violence set off years after 9/11 by Donald Trump.
We need to step back and ask: Is the way that the story is usually told, concentrating on the events of the day as experienced by individuals, the best way to understand 9/11? Why do some details get included in the narrative, while others are excluded? What messages does the narrative send, and whose political interests does it serve?
A historical materialist approach recognizes official historical narratives as cultural productions that serve the interests of the ruling corporate class and the politicians it has cultivated in government. These narratives are some of the “ruling ideas” developed by the intellectuals of the ruling class to reflect and perfect “the illusion of the class about itself,” as Marx and Engels put it in the German Ideology. Historical narratives that reflect ruling ideas deflect attention from the material basis of social change, and instead view events as isolated and disconnected from their social, political, and economic contexts. Of course, they are also constructed to see the ruling class as blameless victims of fate, deserving of the power that they wield in society.
How did the official narrative begin?
One of the first exhibits about 9/11 set the tone for the way the story has been told for years after. The Smithsonian launched “September 11: Bearing Witness to History” in 2003. The exhibit emphasized “individual pain and resilience” but rarely addressed any of the social and political antecedents that led to that day, according to political scientist Amy Fried (2006). The curation staff reported that they deliberately tried to construct a “non-political exhibit,” using media clips and images, while introducing as little interpretation as possible. In the process, though, they ended up producing an exhibit with very clear political messages, according to Fried. For example, the post-9/11 roles of George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani were exalted, their rise treated as one “of individuals who are transmuted from their prior, less exalted condition.” The exhibit lasted only four months and was shut down before the 2004 election got underway, but this first exhibit reportedly pleased the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI specifically.
Political sociologist Patricia Leavy (2007) shows that the war hawks of the Bush administration, and those in media who sometimes inadvertently supported them, crafted a narrative of 9/11 specifically suited to their purposes, that is, justifying the so-called war on terror. This narrative was solidified with four practices: naming the event (we know it as 9/11), saturation coverage of the event (this year we saw the same footage again), the use of superlatives (stressing its disconnection from history), and “selective use of historical metaphors” (comparisons to Pearl Harbor for example were used to make the U.S. “war on terrorism” seem a defensive one). Repeatedly calling it “senseless” made a deeper understanding seem permanently out of reach. A dichotomy was stoked that removed all nuance, contrasting the “terrorists” and the “patriots,” the villains and heroes, and echoing George Bush, those with us and those against us. This narrative, Leavy said, carried over into other aspects of the conservative agenda, even the anti-choice campaign. Leavy describes one bumper sticker from an anti-choice group that appeared in the years after 9/11, showing smoke billowing from the twin towers and the slogan “Every year 3,200 people are murdered by the TERROR of abortion.”
The focus on the horror of the day, its “senselessness” and “evil,” served to hide a more materialist approach, which looks at the event in the broad, interconnected context of resources, people, and production. It diverted attention from access to and control over oil resources, hid U.S. complicity in propping up authoritarian dictators, and looked the other way while bankers’ greed led us into the Great Recession of 2008.
Counter-narratives that challenge the official history were rare but not absent, and they were, for the most part, decisively policed. Rapper KRS-One recounted his childhood memory of being chased out of the financial district where the World Trade Center was located. Cops, he said, pushed him toward the subway and told him to return to his own neighborhood and “leave the rich white folks alone” (Simko 2015). For reasons like that, KRS-One said, African-Americans “cheered when 9/11 happened.” Immediately and roundly denounced for being “in solidarity with Al-Qaeda,” he quickly walked back the tone-deaf comments and was still explaining himself a dozen years later.
Even more vitriolic was the silencing of Ward Churchill, a Native American academic who lost his job as a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder following outrage over a bombastic essay he wrote entitled “‘Some People Push Back’: The Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Churchill’s essay puts the 9/11 attacks into its context, arguing that it was a counter strike in a long war the U.S. and the West in general have waged against the people of the Middle East, from Lyndon Johnson’s assistance to Israel in displacing Palestinians, through George H. W. Bush’s systematic bombing of Iraqi water purification infrastructure, which contributed to the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children. Churchill claims that there were few ways to push back against a system of oppression that is carried out in the clean and seemingly innocent confines of Wall Street offices. He used a term for these technocrats, “little Eichmanns,” that had been used since the 1960s. But this was the phrase that was repeated in the news media, and a fierce backlash against Churchill led to his dismissal from the university faculty.
Recognizing the danger posed by the narrative that justified a “war on terror” instead of a more appropriate targeted law enforcement action in response to the attacks, the CPUSA convened a Peace and Solidarity Conference in Chicago early in 2002, and called out the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 to cover for their ambitions for war:
With the nation in a state of shock after 9/11, the administration was all too willing to take advantage of our collective sorrow and quickly move towards an aggressive policy of retaliation and war. It is not only the looting of the public treasury to fund this unending war, nor the dangerous assault on our basic democratic freedoms in the pursuit of ‘security,’ that we are organizing to stop. It is not only the brutal destruction of Afghanistan and the direct killing of over 3,500 Afghani civilians to which we demand an end. . . . We also call for an end to the very military doctrine now being pursued that threatens to catapult all of humanity into nuclear annihilation.
This analysis sadly remained valid for the next two decades, when over 100,000 Afghans died in the “forever war” that followed.
With the emphasis on the “senselessness” of 9/11 and the reluctance of exhibit curators and op-ed writers to view the events within the context of the global political economy in which it emerged, it is no wonder that young people interviewed recently by the New York Times called on their teachers to do a better job of explaining why it happened, including “a bit more of . . . the history of the U.S. in the Middle East.” 9/11 was set into motion by decades of U.S. and Western imperialist policies that denied people the right of self-determination; an early example was in 1958 when the U.S. sent 15,000 armed forces into Lebanon in 1958 to prop up Maronite Christian President Camille Chamun. Chamun was unpopular with Lebanese people, but he was cooperating with the West in preventing the Arab unity that Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt was promoting. The U.S. has been involved in the region ever since.
People will commemorate 9/11 — it’s natural to revisit events on important anniversaries — but we need to view it as one point in a dynamic history of material political-economic conditions and multiple global actors and strive for deeper understanding of the event and its causes in world history. We need to view narratives embedded in documentaries and public exhibits critically, and not “take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true” (Marx & Engels 1970, 67).
Amy Fried, “The Personalization of Collective Memory: The Smithsonian’s September 11 Exhibit.” Political Communication 23 (4) 2006, 387–405.
Patricia Leavy, “Writing 9/11 Memory: American Journalists and Special Interest Groups as Complicit Partners in 9/11 Political Appropriation.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 35 (1) 2007, 85–101.
Marx & Engels, The German Ideology. International Publishers, 1970. Also in Marxists.org.
Tram Nguyen, “We Are All Suspects Now”: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11. Beacon Press, 2005.
Christina Simko, The Politics of Consolation: Memory and the Meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Image: Charles Edward Miller (CC BY-SA 2.0).