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.