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How 9/11 made “History”

By Mary Dudziak


In classrooms across the country on September 11, 2001, lesson plans were abruptly abandoned. Students and teachers gathered around televisions, sharing the sense that “history” was being made before their eyes. Patricia Latessa, a Cincinnati high school teacher, turned on the cafeteria television “and watched history unfold.” She reflected as she watched about how the scenes of airplanes flying into buildings would impact her students (Figure 1). “The world they knew was bifurcated, cut in half, a time before and a time after”. An unsettling day seemed to require upsetting usual practices. The British Literature teacher at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, in Omaha, Nebraska, burst into a French class during an exam, and turned on the television. At another high school, the principal ordered that the televisions be turned off at midday. Colin Riebel later recalled: “We, the students, revolted. We argued this was a huge part of our history and we had a right to know what was happening to our country. The school complied and let us watch the news again”.

Figure 1 - (Courtesy of Corbis)

Across the nation and the world, people stopped in front of television screens. The planes exploding into the World Trade Center towers were, for many, a replay of news footage. But the burning and falling buildings were viewed by many in “real time.” The footage was broadcast “live.” Live meant at the same time, so the genuine character of the experience came from temporality, not from proximity. Stopping together in time led to a sense of simultaneity, the idea of a collective experience. A different horror, of course, was experienced in Lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the sites where hijacked planes crashed that day. People watching television sometimes felt that the crowds fleeing from the falling buildings were somehow less conscious of “what happened,” lacking access to immediate TV news coverage, an idea that was shared by many at the site of the carnage. As he escaped on foot from Ground Zero, Herbert Ouida, whose son was in WTC Tower 1 but unable to escape, heard that the twin towers had fallen, but later recalled that he “did not believe it until I got to 75th Street at my daughter’s apartment and saw what happened on tv”.

Ten years later, how will the day that disrupted our lesson plans reappear in our curriculum as “history?” Teachers may turn to 9/11’s most ubiquitous framing: the idea that this day “changed everything.” That idea was repeated over and over in 9/11 news coverage, and was a major theme during the somber first anniversary in 2002. But how do we study September 11 as a moment of change? How do we know whether it broke history in two, ushering in a new era?

“History is in good part the story of catastrophes, but most are not game-changers,” Michael Sherry emphasizes in the essay that opens this issue. 9/11 generated “nearly universal” shock, in part because the nature of the attack—airplanes flying into iconic buildings—was so unexpected and unprecedented. There were plenty of changes in the ensuing years, beginning with a reinvigoration of George W. Bush’s presidency, which had gotten off to a difficult start after a disputed election. But most post-9/11 developments, from the invasion of Iraq to an expansion of executive power, had roots in earlier decades.

For both supporters and critics of Bush administration actions, it was torture and other harsh treatment of alleged terrorists that was “most intensely defended and attacked as a break from the past.” These practices were not new, Sherry notes. The departures from the past were that high government officials authorized them, the “brazenness” with which they were defended, the reliance on legal arguments, and the “willful obliviousness to legal and practical considerations.” Discontinuities experienced by Americans, whether from overseas military engagement or from post-9/11 domestic security policy, were “not so much done to us,” he emphasizes, “as done by us.”

After September 11, “homeland” became a name for the United States. The word was a rhetorical marker, an attempt to build a conceptual line around a domestic sphere that had to be defended from an external, threatening world. Perhaps a rhetorical marker was essential during an era that, as Laura McEnaney writes, lacked “clearly delineated borders between military and civilian activity.” McEnaney’s essay compares the post-9/11 United States with other “home fronts” in American history, viewing a home front as “a constellation of domestic policies, dialogues, and daily habits.” Comparing home fronts “can raise interesting questions about what the state asks of its citizens when the country goes to war.” The post-9/11 era “does not stand out as a time when Americans found their lives changed in any significant way,” she writes. Although many claimed that time had been ruptured on September 11, and a new era had begun, “with the notable exception of members of the military and their families, very little” was asked of Americans. A terrorist alert system was created, with colors signaling heightened threats, but President Bush emphasized that “A terrorism alert is not a signal to stop your life,” but instead “a call to be vigilant.” Like the Cold War era, McEnaney suggests, American leaders “hoped that complex foreign policy priorities could be translated into simple directives to inspire people’s participation in home front defense.”

A group of Americans deeply affected in the years after 9/11 was American Muslims. Reflecting on the controversy over the building of an Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site in New York City, Moustafa Bayoumi notes that the passionate anti-Muslim sentiment at a demonstration against the center “illustrated how much being a Muslim in America today is to embody, quite literally, some of America’s most contested political and cultural debates.” In the past decade, Muslims in the United States have gone from relative obscurity to “a sociological dilemma.” Interest in and awareness of Islam was enhanced, but overall, negative opinions about Islam increased over time. While “hate crimes against Muslim Americans skyrocketed in the first six months after 9/11,” Bayoumi writes that “the greatest reverberation” came instead from “sweep arrests across the nation,” as hundreds of Muslim immigrants were rounded up. Various government programs targeting Muslims often led these communities to feel that they were “under siege.” Different narratives about Muslims competed for attention in American culture, but as the first decade after 9/11 came to a close, one strain was gaining ascendency: “the fabulous story the American Muslims are on a ‘stealth jihad’ to usurp the U.S. Constitution and impose Islamic law on the land.” Bayoumi sets anti-Muslim sentiment in the context of American nativism and Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of a “paranoid style” of American politics, which he argues seems to capture the belief of “the modern anti-Muslim crusader … that Islam is on the march in the country, and they are the last resistance.”

Although there were three sites of 9/11 terrorist attacks, and as Erika Doss writes, there have been hundreds of 9/11 memorials created, Ground Zero has played a central role as a site for memorializing 9/11. In May 2011, for example, after American forces killed Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the World Trade Center site, as a way of paying tribute to all who died in the September 11 attacks. Doss suggests that memorials can be good teaching tools, enabling us to consider “how, and why, cultural memory is created, and how it shapes local and national identity.” Not long after September 11, debate over what to do with the Ground Zero site led to heated disagreement. Proposals ranged from rebuilding the towers higher than before, to creating a park, to leaving the space in ruins, like parts of post-World War II Berlin. A competition for design ideas for a memorial generated thousands of entries. The winning design then became a focus of protest, as families of the dead argued that they should “Take Back the Memorial” as the burial site for their loved ones.     Continue reading >>

Mary L. Dudziak is Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Professor of Law, History and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law School. Her books include Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey and War Time: An Idea, its History, its Consequences.

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