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9/11 Thoughts


I hesitated to post my thoughts on September 11, both because everyone is inundated with remembrances and because so many people were affected much more directly than I was (including a good man I knew whose sister was on the plane that flew into the Pentagon and who I thought about today for the first time in a long time).

Still, I have a couple of points I’d like to make.

1. My immediate reaction was to think about the event historically. This was probably a coping mechanism as much as anything. As I mentioned in the comments to Rob’s post from earlier today, the first thing I told my students (I was a graduate student at the time teaching U.S. history discussion sections at the University of New Mexico) was to think about how U.S. policy over the last half century might have played into this whole mess and how the event was much more complicated than it would be made out to be.

So I was a bit annoyed when, on a history listserv a few days later, a very prominent historian who many of you have heard of posted that this was the one time in his life when he knew the world had changed.

I understood why people were saying things like this, but at the time it seemed pretty ahistorical to me–at the very least, the fall of the Berlin Wall was obviously as world-changing.

Thinking about this a decade later, there’s no question that September 11 is one of those events that defined a generation. But in considering my conscious lifetime, which extends back to about 1980, I wouldn’t put it higher than 4th, behind the end of the Cold War, the rise of the internet, and Bush v. Gore (and the rise of conservatism more broadly). Maybe 3rd I guess. I think future historians will break up American history in 1989 rather than 2001.

Others may disagree.

2. Readers of this blog may well disagree with this, but I was pleasantly surprised at how little race hatred 9/11 spawned. Yes, there were isolated assaults and even murders of Muslims and Sikhs in the immediate aftermath. We have found it OK to torture citizens of other nations outside the rule of law, the invasion of nations unrelated to the event, and other awful things. But if the obvious comparison to 9/11 is Pearl Harbor, Americans did not round up the nation’s Muslims and put them in concentration camps for 4 years. We didn’t confiscate their property or violate their civil liberties on a massive scale. Yes, we did this on a limited scale and often unjustly. But say what you will about how screwed up this nation is, we have made national progress of issues of race and collective violence and you have seen evidence of this over the last decade.

3. I was in New York for the 4th anniversary of 9/11, 2005. I was at the site while they were doing the reading of names by family members. It was the single saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I couldn’t stay that long because it was making me upset, but it profoundly affected me.

4. I’m also interested in how epochal events are represented artistically. 9/11 has spawned at least 2 major pieces of art, Flight 93 and John Adams’ composition, On The Transmigration of Souls. Of course, 9/11 also led to the Iraq War, the use of torture, and other events that have created a range of interesting artistic responses, from the excellent (In the Valley of Elah and The Hurt Locker) to the laughably awful (Lions for Lambs) to the disturbing and demoralizing (24). Be curious to see how this develops in the future.

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  • The Shaggy DA

    You don’t consider Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” a major work of art?

    • Ha ha, I was going to put that in the list with 24 but I forgot.

      • Malaclypse

        Since at least 3 family members have posted Toby Keith’s on facebook today, I have not been blessed with forgetfulness.

        • mark f

          There was another Toby Keith song called something like “Taliban Man,” featuring the lyrics “so Mr. Bush got on the phone and warned Iraq and Iran ‘You sons of bitches better stop messin’ around . . . with the Taliban'”.

          And there was that Alan Jackson song in which he proudly announced that he didn’t know the difference between Iraq and Iran but he still remembers 9/11.

          • It said a lot about what country music is about today with these songs–it appeals to conservative suburbanites who long for a theoretical rural life so long as they can have their SUVs and megachurches and 64 oz Dr. Pepper’s and can remain intentionally ignorant about the world.

            Of course, it’s not like the genre’s response to Vietnam was any more progressive, but it was more honest.

            • mark f

              And it only got worse a year and a half later, with Darryl Worley going to #1 by conflating Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden and Clint Blank coming up with one of the stupidest puns of all time:

              Now it might be a smart bomb,
              they find stupid people too.
              If you stand with the likes of Saddam,
              well, one might just find you.
              Iraq, I rack ’em up and I roll,
              I’m back and I’m a hi-tech GI Joe.
              I got infrared, I got GPS,
              I got that good old-fashioned lead.
              No price too high for freedom,
              so be careful where you tread

              • mark f

                Er, Clint Black. My best typo yet.

              • mark f

                Er, Clint Black. My best typo yet.

          • DrDick

            This is one of my favorite musical responses to the whole thing.

          • somethingblue

            And there was that Alan Jackson song in which he proudly announced that he didn’t know the difference between Iraq and Iran but he still remembers 9/11.

            And loves Jesus.

        • Ed Marshall

          Mine apparently leans more toward mental illness than wingnuttiness. I’ve got three different infowar.com 9/11 truth things that I’m attempting to ignore from mine. Although they all like Ron Paul, so maybe it’s just a different form of wingnutty, mental illness.

      • “24” was green-lit before 9/11.

  • UberMitch

    We didn’t confiscate their property or violate their civil liberties on a massive scale

    Based on what we currently know, the civil liberties violations are only on about a medium scale. Let’s see what’s declassified 50-100 years from now!

    • UserGoogol

      Well, it’s reasonably easy to confirm that Muslims haven’t been secretly round into camps by virtue of the fact that Muslim-Americans collectively haven’t mysteriously vanished over the last ten years.

      It’s of course quite plausible that the civil liberties violations may have been worse than we think, but we can safely say that nothing really massive has happened.

  • “On the Transmigration of Souls” really is one of the more remarkable artistic endeavors of the last 20 years. It’s really hard to listen to that more than once or twice a year, but it never stops being powerful, either.

  • DrDick

    I think much of my reaction, after the subsequent shock, was similar to yours in many ways. I viewed it in a larger geopolitical and historical context, including our ongoing neo-colonial interventions. While I concede that it could have been far worse (and has been in the past), the xenophobic reaction against Muslims and swarthy folks is still quite pronounced and disturbing.

  • 1. Absent 9/11, Bush vs. Gore just doesn’t matter that much in the larger scheme of things. Absent 9/11, the almost-certainly-one-term Dubya presidency is defined by NCLB, Medicare Part D and a short-term tax cut (all of which are revised in a few years), and doesn’t look that much different from Poppy Bush/Clinton/Obama presidencies, in which governance remained within spitting distance of the political center.

    Also 1. While I can understand that “think about what American policy could have done to cause this” was important to say because it was the most important observation that was likely to be overlooked,that doesn’t make it the most important observation to be made about the event. It was a necessary corrective in September 2001 in order to prevent simplistic, biased thought. Unfortunately, to too many, it’s become not a corrective to an insufficiency of complexity, but a core principle that, itself, works against an appropriate level of complexity.

    2. I think it’s notable that the outburst of Islamophobia around the Burlington Coat Factory Mosque in 2010 was much greater than any such outburst in the first eight or so years after 9/11. It’s unusual for such a reaction to grow stronger as the event recedes, and it’s worthwhile to acknowledge this development and consider why.

    3. The murdered pilot of one of the planes was a farmer from a town next to Lowell, James Ogonowski. He was a great guy involved in causes like land conservation. He helped to organize a program that allowed poor Cambodians from Lowell’s inner-city neighborhoods – people who’d grown up as farmers in rural villages, and were transplanted into urban apartment houses – to lease little plots of land to farm. This is a poorer world without him.

    4. “The Rising” by Bruce Springstein is the best popular song I can think of about the 9/11 attacks. It’s not bad, but “not bad” seems to be the upper bound for the genre.

    • UberMitch

      A lot of Bush travesties still would have still happened absent 9/11, like for instance ruining DOJ, environmental regs, etc.

      • Indeed. Bush would have been a lousy president, noticeably less able, decent, or responsible than his father, or Clinton, or Obama, or Gore.

        But he would not have had as free a hand for his shortcomings, and they would have had less significance as a result.

        • 87

          9/11 also exposed the cravenness residing in the Senate Democratic caucus.

          • Agreed. Before 9/11, they looked like they were going along with whatever centrist mush came out of the White House because they were mushy centrists.

            But for them to go along with the genuine radicalism of post-9/11 George Bush was striking.

            • Ed Marshall

              That was just the sorriest bunch of losers ever seen. They all knew that the democrats took losses over Gulf War I and took the lesson that Gulf War II was something they weren’t going to miss out on. Then they lost again.

              Stupid, stupid, morons.

              • How do you vote against the UN-authorized mission to eject an aggressor state out of the small, helpless neighbor that it just annexed by force and proclaimed to be a province, and then vote for the 2003 AUMF?

                WTF is that? How do you do that, and maintain any self respect at all?

            • Murc

              9/11 sort of… well, it exposed how weak we were as a country, in some ways. A lot of the nation. including our elected representatives, went along with the striking radicalism of post-9/11 George Bush because in their hearts they wanted some hardcore Ledeen Doctrine action and they didn’t care about anything else.

              I’m not proud of what I’m about to admit, and I can’t pass it off as being young and callow then, since I did know better. But there were a few months after 9/11 where I genuinely thought ‘I’m glad we have a cowboy Republican and his twisted henchman running the country, because they are going to wreck everyone who even looked at us crosswise SO HARD.’

              Like I said. I’m not proud. And I expect my Congressmen and Presidents to be made of sterner stuff than I am. But still.

    • calling all toasters

      Absent 9/11, Bush vs. Gore just doesn’t matter that much in the larger scheme of things.

      But absent Bush v. Gore, 9/11 may not have happened.

      • pete

        Since Clinton explicitly warned Bush about OBL, it seems unlikely that the selection of Bush Jr was critical. Now if Dukakis … but this way leads madness.

        • Hob

          Not sure what you’re getting at. I took Toasters’ point to be that if we’d had a different president, Al Qaeda probably still would’ve tried to do the thing, but it could’ve been stopped. And that’s not hard to imagine, given the degree to which GWB ignored warnings from the Clinton administration and from his own intelligence people.

          • pete

            Actually, I may have misunderstood the comment, but also Clinton didn’t find OBL (and was looking), Bush didn’t find him, and I kinda doubt Gore would have found him. Bush blew off the warnings, but the CIA was trying to look. And I doubt that adequate security would have been put in place anyway. Gore would have handled the response better, of course, but that’s not the same thing.

    • Bush was getting that Iraq War no matter what.

      • BradP


        And why do you think Bush was the leading proponent, rather than an incompetent with conservative advisors who jumped at an opportunity.

        I find it really, really hard to believe that Bush Jr. would have been the caliber of president to spearhead the Iraq War to a populace that hadn’t endured the 9/11 attacks.

        • Malaclypse

          I find it really, really hard to believe that Bush Jr. would have been the caliber of president to spearhead the Iraq War to a populace that hadn’t endured the 9/11 attacks.

          Why? Depending on how you define the word “war,” there has been only one President since Hoover to not preside over a war.

          • BradP

            How many presidents have been able to launch a preemptive land occupation on such flimsy pretenses?

            • Malaclypse

              Absent 9-11, there would have been different circumstances.

            • Ed Marshall

              His father, in Panama, presided over a much more ridiculous conflict and causus beli.

              • DrDick

                Reagan in Grenada probably holds the title for that accomplishment.

                • Malaclypse

                  Look, those med school students might have been converted to Communism, then brought the horrors of socialized medicine to our shores.

        • Ed Marshall

          According to O’Neil, the Bush administration (with Bush in agreement) was making plans to invade Iraq in early 2001.

          I’m not sure what the argument about Bush’s “caliber” means. If you characterize him as an incompetent with conservative advisers, he is still the same guy with the same advisers and multiple sources say that in the NSC it was a given that Iraq was going to be invaded from the day Bush walked into the White House.

          • BradP

            Call me crazy, but I would like to think that the public reception would have been different. Without the “We are under attack!” narrative that met public opposition, I don’t think the sale of the Iraq War would have been so simple.

            • Malaclypse

              As Ed says upthread, Manuel Noreiga probably disagrees with you.

              • DrDick

                As does Grenada.

  • TT

    It was hard not to think, even in the immediate aftermath, that the right wing’s worst instincts would be unleashed, particularly so close on the heels of impeachment and Bush v. Gore. It would have been every bit as awful under a Gore presidency, too.

  • Fractal Lady

    As far as music, I don’t think anything can touch, Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. Into the Fire reduces me to tears every time I hear it.

  • RhZ

    Well, I will bite, although its not much of a story.

    I was visiting my folks after taking the bar in August. My father called to me to get up, and something in his voice didn’t so much alarm me as simply compel me to heed his request (not a morning person usually). He did say, we have been attacked, I remember.

    I slumped downstairs and sat in front of the tv for several hours it seems like. Nothing was said.

    I wasn’t very up to date on global issues at the time, busy with other things, so I don’t think I even knew about Osama and Al Queda.

    But I knew what payback looked like. What for, specifically, I didn’t know, but I knew this was payback for some horrible actions we had committed in the past.

    I feel this is the US’s biggest failure, the inability to realize that our policies, our bombs and guns, led directly to this attack. And that if we wish to prevent another attack, if we wish to truly honor our dead, we should start being a lot more careful with how we use those bombs and guns.

    Of course, as a nation we took the opposite tack, covering ourselves in blamelessness and killing even more people than we had before.

  • I can’t quite claim to be psychic, but I moved to Mexico on 1-September-2001 in part because I feared my country’s drift into reaction, greed, and what looked like a country itching to start a war.

    I can’t say I wasn’t surprised by the attack, but the results were something I feared, and which were less surprising. Even at the time, it seemed logical that the attacks were aimed at the most visible symbols of U.S. dominance of global capitalism and militarism.

    When I briefly returned to the U.S. in 2002, I didn’t recognize the country. There were the DISPLAYS of war-time, but not the sense of a real war… the simulation of war, without any sense of sacrifice or common purpose, beyond the “USA! USA!” chanting we also heard when Osama bin Ladin was killed. It was as if the country was a giant football stadium, with rah-rah cheering of a “game”. Of course, being in Mexico — a country with a lot of oil and a crappy army — it’s too easy to chalk up the dis-ease with our northern neighbor to just a superficial resemblance to Iraq.

    Remember, in September 2001, Mexico and the United States were establishing good relations, and — whatever one thinks of NAFTA (and I’m a severe critic of it) — there was a sense that the U.S. and Mexico would start treating each other as equals. But, with the attacks on 11 September, the provincial “with us or against us” mentality took over in the U.S. We were not just forgotten, but in the last ten years, we have become “the other”… along with the Arabs, the Africans and even in a large sense the Europeans.

    • I’d gotten back to the US in the summer of 2001 from studying abroad. I can’t say I felt anything strange about the country, but when the attacks happened, I was more surprised at the scale than the fact that it had happened. Being abroad and talking to people (in Spain, which was full of anti-US young folks, and travelling through Morocco), it wasn’t hard to tell that a lot of people had a lot of problems with our policies.

  • The best artistic reaction I know is “110 Stories” by the late John M. Ford. It’s here.

  • BradP

    I was a 19-yo moderately liberal sophomore in college that really didn’t have much of a political orientation other than the understanding that the conservative ideals of my midwestern family often didn’t make sense and was therefore suspect.

    My political opinions have been formed under the shadow of US government reactions to 9/11, both foreign and domestic.

  • What major piece of art do you mean by “Flight 93”? The memorial in rural PA itself? The Greengrass film United 93?

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