There was also an outpouring of art, like Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” and Anne Nelson’s earnest play “The Guys.” Such works served useful purposes — cathartic commemoration, therapeutic expression, public rallying — but in retrospect, many of them now feel sentimental or heavy-handed. Later on, anger over the war in Iraq and worries about the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush war on terror would produce a wave of politically engaged movies and plays — including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”; unfortunately, a lot of it turned out to be obvious or shrill. Terrorist plots popped up on TV shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI: NY,” while new counterterrorism-themed shows like “The Unit,” “Sleeper Cell” and the forthcoming “Homeland” proliferated.
Some eloquent or daring works of art about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually did emerge — most notably, Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing film “The Hurt Locker,” about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq; Gregory Burke’s haunting play “Black Watch,” based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq with a Scottish regiment; Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission,” which explored the fallout of 9/11 on American attitudes toward Muslims; Donald Margulies’s play “Time Stands Still,” about the Iraq war’s effects on two journalists and their relationship; and Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” a bronze sculpture commemorating those who fell or jumped to their deaths from the twin towers (it was removed from Rockefeller Center after complaints that it was too disturbing, too soon).
Compelling as such works are, however, none were really game-changing. None possess the vaulting ambition of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now,” or the sweep of Mr. DeLillo’s “Underworld,” which captured the entire cold war era. Instead, these 9/11 works feel like blips on the cultural landscape — they neither represent a new paradigm nor suggest that the attacks were a cultural watershed. Perhaps this is because 9/11 did not really change daily life for much of the country. Perhaps it’s because our A.D.D. nation — after the assassinations of J.F.K., R.F.K. and M.L.K. in the ’60s, and decades of violence on 24-hour news — has become increasingly inured to shock.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Some critics have argued that not enough time has passed for artists to gain sufficient perspective on 9/11. Tolstoy, after all, wrote about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia more than 50 years later; in this respect, it may be decades before larger narratives (concerning American vulnerability and American decline) surface as animating ideas in ambitious works of art. Then again, Picasso created “Guernica” in 1937, only weeks after the savage bombing of that town during the Spanish Civil War.
In the meantime, a lot of post-9/11 culture seems like a cut-and-paste version of pre-9/11 culture — or a more extreme version of it. Indeed, pop culture has slid so far into the slough of celebrity worship and escapist fluff that the antics of the Kardashian sisters now pass as entertainment. Sensationalism continues its march, and so does the blurring between news and gossip. Reality shows, which took off in 2000 with “Survivor,” continued to snowball in popularity. James Patterson, Michael Crichton and John Grisham continued to dominate best-seller lists. Even things thought, after 9/11, to be verboten — like blowing up New York for a big-screen thrill — soon made a comeback: In “Cloverfield” (2008), the Statue of Liberty is decapitated as a monster trashes the city.
For that matter, the last decade often seemed to be all about recycling. Old television shows (“Get Smart,” “Miami Vice”) and comic books (“Spider-Man,” “X-Men”) were recycled into films. Old movies (“Arthur,” “The Karate Kid”) were remade. Jukebox musicals were assembled onstage from old pop songs (“Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages”), and vintage soul and roots rock enjoyed a revival.
“Instead of being the threshold to the future,” the critic Simon Reynolds writes in his astute new book, “Retromania,” the 2000s “were dominated by the ‘re-’ prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments.”
In fact, several prominent novels dealing with 9/11 drew heavily from earlier classics. Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” which captures the precariousness of post-9/11 daily life, reads like a contemporary variation on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” features a hero named Oskar, who resembles the hero of the same name in Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum.” And Mohsin Hamid’s chilling novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” — which recounts the effect 9/11 has on a successful Pakistani immigrant — borrowed the structure and central themes of Camus’s novel “The Fall.” Why this eagerness to pour new content into old vessels? In “Retromania,” Mr. Reynolds suggests technology in the 2000s contributed to a “fading of the artistic imperative to be original.” In the case of 9/11 novels, familiar forms may also provide narrative strategies for artists trying to subdue an event that seemed to defy representation — one that reminds us of Philip Roth’s 1961 observation that American reality stupefies and infuriates the writer because it is “continually outdoing our talents.”
No doubt this is why many powerful works to emerge about 9/11 and its aftermath have been documentary or fact-based. In the past, with traumatic subjects like Vietnam and AIDS, this has been the trajectory over time: News accounts and witness testimony give way to memoirs, which in turn give way to more metaphorical works of the imagination.
While writers struggled to find words to describe the unimaginable, photographers captured the devastation of 9/11 with visceral eloquence. “Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs,” a project that invited everyone from professional photographers to regular New Yorkers to share their images, created a choral portrait of the city through personal acts of bearing witness.
The Power of Bare Facts
In terms of narrative scope and harrowing drama, no novel has yet to match “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction account of the events that led to 9/11. Terry McDermott’s book “Perfect Soldiers” drew a portrait of the real 9/11 hijackers that was far more compelling than the crude jihadi stereotype in John Updike’s novel “Terrorist.” Alex Gibney’s documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side” similarly provided a more indelible portrait of the dark side of the war on terror than such fictional films as “Rendition” and “Redacted.” The straight-up documentary “9/11” (using video shot that day by Jules and Gedeon Naudet) possesses a raw power totally lacking in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” which imposed a conventional Hollywood frame around the story of two survivors, trying to make a chaotic nightmare yield an inspirational story with the soothing illusion of closure.
In fact, 9/11 poses distinct challenges to the artist. As with Mr. Stone’s movie, there is the danger of trying to domesticate an overwhelming tragedy. There is also the question of presumption: How does one convey the enormity of the event without trivializing it? How does one bend art forms more often used for entertainment or artistic expression toward the capturing of history?
In “On the Transmigration of Souls,” the composer John Adams used taped sounds of New York to create what he called a “memory space” in which the audience could mourn. In his novel “The Zero,” Jess Walter used a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd to conjure the post-traumatic stress disorder the nation suffered. And in their TV series “Rescue Me,” Denis Leary and Peter Tolan looked directly at the post-9/11 lives of firefighters for whom “normal is dead and buried underneath ground zero.”
All too often, however, artworks keyed to 9/11 felt mercenary or narcissistic. Craig Wright’s play “Recent Tragic Events” was a slick romantic comedy about a blind date that takes place the day after 9/11, and Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat,” also set on Sept. 12, used the attacks as an excuse for another of his cynical treatises on the venality of man. Novelists were equally solipsistic, using 9/11 as a plot point, as a mirror of their characters’ inner lives, or as a device to try to inject importance into otherwise slender stories. In Helen Schulman’s “A Day at the Beach,” 9/11 leads a hip downtown couple to reassess their marriage. And in Frédéric Beigbeder’s “Windows on the World,” a fictional storyline about a man and his sons caught in the World Trade Center on 9/11 is crassly intercut with the intellectual musings of a self-important narrator.
Fantasies and Forerunners
Sept. 11 and the emotions it generated — fear, anger, a desire for revenge — also fueled the success of several entertainment franchises. The hit counterterrorism show “24,” its co-creator Joel Surnow told the New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, was “ripped out of the zeitgeist of what people’s fears are — their paranoia that we’re going to be attacked.” The series frequently used torture as a way of gathering intelligence; it depicted the fight against terrorism much as members of the Bush administration did: as a struggle for American survival that required all means necessary.
In the case of the Syfy Channel’s remake of “Battlestar Galactica” — which depicted some humans who survive an attack by enemy robots — its executive producer Ronald D. Moore noted that many plot elements were “informed by the 9/11 experience and the war on terrorism.” Fans of Microsoft’s hugely popular video game “Halo,” in which humans face off against an alliance of alien species bent on holy war, have also pointed to parallels between the aliens and Al Qaeda.
For that matter, fantasy epics — pitting good versus evil in stark Manichaean terms — dominated the box office in the last decade: among the top-grossing films were “Avatar,” two installments of “The Lord of the Rings,” three installments of “Harry Potter” and “The Dark Knight.” Superheroes like Spider-Man and Iron Man ruled, and so did vampires. There was a lot of intellectualizing about all this: arguments that the fantasy boom embodied Americans’ need for escapism after 9/11; that superhero sagas offered audiences a way to process the tragedy; that vampires, like terrorists, pose a deadly threat but often hide in plain sight. Steven Spielberg said his 2005 remake of “War of the Worlds” reflected post-9/11 anxiety. Time’s Richard Corliss described the Joker in “The Dark Knight” as “the terrorist as improv artist.” And bloggers compared Voldemort and his Death Eaters in “Harry Potter” to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
It’s too easy, however, to see every recent pop culture phenomenon as a metaphor for combating terrorism. Voldemort sprang from J. K. Rowling’s imagination well before 9/11. The Tolkien novels, like Batman, Spider-Man and many of their superhero brethren, predate 9/11 by decades, as do the first “Star Wars” movies. Curiously, the best-known terrorist-themed movies remain ones made before 9/11, including “Air Force One” (1997), “True Lies” (1994), “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Die Hard” (1988). Some of the works of art that would prove the most resonant in the post-9/11 world also turn out to have been written before the attacks. Tony Kushner began work on his play “Homebody/Kabul,” which unfolds into an examination of the West’s relationship with Afghanistan, back in 1997. And such early Don DeLillo novels as “Mao II” (1991) did a more prescient job of conjuring the post-9/11 era — in which terrorists have changed “the rules of what is thinkable” — than the flimsy novels he wrote after the attacks.
It is another measure of how resistant 9/11 remains to artistic treatment that several of the more memorable artworks that captured the city’s sense of loss did so by indirection. Colum McCann’s novel “Let the Great World Spin” focuses on New York City in 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between the twin towers on a tightrope. And Ric Burns’s documentary “The Center of the World” and Camilo José Vergara’s photographs on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York make us re-experience the loss of the World Trade Center by recounting its history.
At the same time, other artistic creations — unrelated to 9/11 — took on new depth or new meanings. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental project “The Gates,” conceived in 1979 and only realized in 2005 with the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, threaded Central Park with 7,500 gates wrapped in saffron fabric, turning that great communal space into a work of art that was at once visionary and interactive, ephemeral and enduring. The largest public art project in the city’s history, it became, for many New Yorkers, a symbol of hope, of transcendence, of healing after 9/11.
“It’s not that everything is different after 9/11; it’s more that we look at the same stuff through a different prism,” says Kate D. Levin, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner. In the case of “The Gates,” she adds, something that had “nothing to do with 9/11, something that was completely about aesthetics” became “that much more profound.”Continue reading the main story
Pakistan’s Continuing Dilemma
Kamran Asdar Ali
In May of this year, when Osama Bin Laden was revealed to have been living in the tranquility of a suburb in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s premier military academy, it again brought to the surface underlying tensions between the Pakistani and American governments. The relationship between the militaries of the two countries is an old one, and the mutual suspicion is not new either. […]
From Global Civil Society to Global War: A Decade of Disequilibrium
Jeffrey Ayres and Sidney Tarrow
A decade ago, coming off of parallel research projects on what some were then calling “global civil society,” we responded to a request from the SSRC that we contribute to an online forum on the impact of 9/11 from our work on transnational contention. […]
The 9/11 Syndrome: Europe, Islam, and Muslims
The rest of the world should be grateful to Western civilization for having given it the concept of human rights. There are some things we cannot do to others, not because it is God’s command, because we will go to hell or earn spiritual demerit, but because of certain capacities that people possess. We cannot harm others because this is what we minimally owe them. This realization does not entail the idea of human rights as supreme, something over and above all other values in every context and at all times. […]
September 11, Ten Years On
Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira
Ten years ago I argued in this space that under global capitalism, wars among major nations no longer made sense and that the turning point from a world where the great countries were permanently threatening each other with war to a world of international economic competition had been the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. War made sense while there were real winners and losers—while the winner could reduce the loser to a condition of slavery, or impose taxes on its new colony, or incorporate its territory. […]
9/11: Landmark or Watershed?
Richard W. Bulliet
Was 9/11 a landmark event or a watershed event? I started posing this question to friends and students soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and urged them to keep it in mind as they watched the fallout over the passing years. […]
Reflections on September 11, Ten Years After
It is a rare opportunity to be asked to reflect on an essay written a decade ago, now with the benefit of hindsight—of knowing what has happened, rather than anticipating what might happen—and with the tempting prospect of saying “I told you so.” But the truth is that the meaning of September 11 continues to recede just as the tenth anniversary arrives, or remains as difficult to fathom now as it was then. […]
Since September 11, 2001 . . .
A decade of intense theorizing on the forms of violence and human degradation, on global connectivity, on demands that scholarship be done in “real time” . . . a sense of urgency . . . disciplines are aggressively asked to prove their relevance . . . a deep disquiet on the part of many radical scholars and public intellectuals that the American public is increasingly becoming complicit in projects of warfare. We ask, are our senses being so retrained now that we cannot see the suffering of others or hear their cries? […]
Whither Cyber Terror?
Dorothy E. Denning
Ten years have passed since G-Force Pakistan, a group of Pakistani hackers with a history of defacing websites, announced the formation of the Al-Qaeda Alliance on one of their hacked sites. Declaring that they stood by Al-Qaeda, the defacement said they would be attacking major US and British websites and giving confidential data to Al-Qaeda authorities. […]
9/11+10: Remembering and Forgetting
James Der Derian
Ten years on, remembering 9/11 has become an event in and of itself.1 There is much to honor through memory—the loss of innocent lives, the sacrifice of the first responders, the coming together of communities, from the local to the global, against the terrorist attack on the United States. But there are also moments we […]
Rethinking Afghanistan after a Decade
Reading what I wrote about Afghanistan a decade ago reminded me of how much my understanding of the role of war and hard power in upholding security for the nation and the world has changed. Actually, it seems clear to me that my views on Afghanistan back in 2001 were an exception to my general skepticism about Western interventions in the non-Western world, a view formed during ten years of opposition to the American role in the Vietnam War. […]
Secularism Makes a Stand
Ten years ago, the shock of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, led me to reflect on the impact of secularism on modern developments in East Asia, especially in Japan, whose postwar economic transformation had become the model for the region. I wondered whether the Enlightenment project that inspired the secularism had been misunderstood and led to government policies that damaged the faiths and religions that most people still believed in. […]
9/11: The Lightning Strikes of History
The famous French historian Fernand Braudel distinguished “macrohistory” from “microhistory.” The former is the history of significant political, economic, and social events, while the latter is the history of the proliferation of, and the slow changes in, people’s everyday lives. […]
The End of the American Century: 9/11 Ten Years On
9/11 was a crime against the United States and a crime against humanity. Treating the criminals who perpetrated it as soldiers at war with the United States and the West only elevated their status and standing and began the “War on Terror.” The war was as ill formulated as it was executed. […]
Echoes of 9/11: Anti-politics and Politics from Bush to Obama
On November 12, 2001, I received a request from the German journal Kommune to send for their next issue, which was already in press, some reflections on the events of 9/11 and their implications for the future. The invitation was welcome; after all, what can an intellectual do in the face of such total destruction but try to construct some sense by using his most familiar tool, the word? […]
Unfulfilled Expectations of Democracy: Political Developments in Central Asia after 9/11
Before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia didn’t rank among the regional priorities of US foreign policy. Neither did ordinary Americans have much interest in this region. In 2000, taking part in a scholarly conference held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I dared to complain that, to my observation, the average US citizen often doesn’t have any idea about the very existence of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian “stans” or where they are located. […]
9/11, Global Emergency, and the Crisis of Multilateralism
The response I made some weeks after the attack on the twin towers by and large has been reinforced over the years. The core of my argument was the idea that the practices and language of security that were so pivotal to the response to the events of 9/11 risked marginalizing the broader context of power and interest that shapes these transnational issues. […]
“Traditionalist” Islamic Activism: Deoband and Deobandis, Ten Years Later
Barbara D. Metcalf
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, commentators trying to analyze Afghan support for Al-Qaeda put a great deal of emphasis on the Taliban’s sectarian orientation as “Deobandi.” Deobandis across South Asia were known for disapproval of what they took to be Sufi or Shia intercessory practices that might compromise monotheism; they also discouraged celebration of ostentatious life-cycle customs. […]
Change in Another Decade of Civic War
Peter Alexander Meyers
May Day. It is the feast of pagans and socialists and the namesake of distress. We are ten years into the age of 9/11. George W. Bush is gone and Barack Obama is again casting his voice into the air. No lilting refrain. No poetry. The president is most intent on gravity, although the teleprompter is oddly placed so he cannot look us in the eye. Here is a familiar story retold. Once upon a time, there was a bad man, an enemy to even his own people, like Benedict Arnold or Rasputin or John Wayne Gacy. […]
“Rescue” Ten Years Out: An Anecdotal Report on Afghan Women’s Challenges
After nearly a decade of foreign military intervention and with a visibly deteriorating security situation that has affected most of the country over the last three to five years, the primary concern of Afghan women and their families remains physical security, and second to that, economic and food security. […]
What We Have Learned from 9/11
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. The tragedy surely changed the global political landscape forever. The shockwaves it sent throughout the world, most notably through the United States, raised hopes that the tragedy would encourage probing of the causes of the event and help change Western governments’ foreign and military policies and adventures in the interest of reducing global tensions.
That has hardly happened. […]
The Paradoxes of the Re-Islamization of Muslim Societies
The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West, fueled by the fate of the Palestinians and by Western encroachments in the Middle East; and if this wrath, which has pervaded the contemporary history of the Middle East, has been cast in Islamic terms, it is because Islam is allegedly the main, if not the only, reference that has shaped Muslim minds and societies since the Prophet. […]
Retribution and Its Consequences
One of my teachers, Roy Macridis, was fond of saying that public policy, in particular that which is relative to foreign policy, should be evaluated not for its objectives but for its consequences. The theme that especially grieved him was the Vietnam War, concerning which his pithy affirmation was that the United States had achieved exactly the opposite of what it had set out to accomplish.
Ten years ago, my concern was that the American response to the brutal attacks of 9/11 would bring about precisely the opposite of what was intended. […]
Ten Years Later: The Pursuit of National Security Is Now the Source of Urban Insecurity
Writing about 9/11 in 2001, right after it had happened, what I saw as an activating field, though not the origin, was the rapacious global political economy Western governments and firms have produced over decades and centuries. By “activating field,” I do not mean a cause, but a type of agency that enables, which might be one of several. This activating field has been one factor in many and diverse historic events—some emancipatory, such as the independence movements of the 1960s in Africa, and some brutal and murderous, such as the 9/11 attacks.
Being asked to write about what I see today, ten years later, I am struck by the emergence of yet another activating field—the urbanizing of wars and the associated global projection of even minor attacks. […]
America’s Global Implosion: From the Washington Consensus to the Arab Spring
The most unpredictable result of the aftermath of 9/11 was surely the massive implosion of US global power.
A lot was of course predictable in the aftermath. It was clear that the US state would appoint itself the “global executioner,” as we suggested then, although less clear how this would work through. […]
Mourning the Arrested Memory of 9/11
So politicized, so fraught, and so painfully disappointing, the process of memorialization of the events of 9/11, symbolically focused on Ground Zero in New York City, was in many ways entirely predictable from the first months after September 11. […]
Planes, Trains, and Chemical Plants: China in 2001 and 2011
What kind of year was 2001?
American government figures and candidates for office can only answer this in one way—if, that is, they want to be seen as mainstream representatives of either of the main political parties. They have to begin by referring to the tragedies and traumas of 9/11 and move on to the challenges the country faced a decade ago in the aftermath of that horrific day. Leading members of a very different political organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), might be strongly tempted to respond to the query in a radically contrasting way, at least when talking among themselves. […]
Diaspora in History: Reflections on 9/11 in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring and UK Riots, 2011
In my earlier essay posted on the SSRC website, I spoke of the “tragic predicament of a diaspora caught between deeply felt loyalties, at an historical moment not of its own making. Most British Muslims in the diaspora,” I commented, “witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on television, sitting in their living rooms, with the same helpless sense of horror as Western spectators. […]
The Attack on Humanity, Ten Years Later: Conflict and Management
I. William Zartman
A decade has passed since September 11, 2001. On our side, there is still bickering over construction of the memorial site in Manhattan, but the war over the mosque, or cultural center, nearby has gone into remission. Memorial services focus on the victims rather than on the clash of civilizations that the attacks represented. This year, we can even celebrate with fanfare, since Osama Bin Laden is dead, dumped ceremoniously into the Indian Ocean.
But, on the other side, the conflict is not over. […]