In the summer of 2001, I was twenty-six years old. I worked in a low-key academic staff position at a suburban Philadelphia university and spent my free time with friends. The headlines absorbing the national news included a spate of shark attacks that may or may not have qualified as a genuine spate — or as attacks, for that matter. Sharks just bite sometimes, is all; it was the media attention that was constant and aggressive. All in all, I was living an unremarkable life during unremarkable times. On the evening of Sept. 6, I flew to Rome for a ten-day family vacation. By the time I returned to the US, things were…different. Following the 9/11 attacks, many were even saying that the world itself had changed. And, of course, for those struggling with intimate losses, their worlds, their day-to-day realities, truly had changed.
Daily life transformed overnight for other people in other ways. Anyone perceived to be Muslim or of Arab descent was suddenly facing intense suspicion. Security professionals were suddenly operating with heightened vigilance under intensified stakes. Beginning with United Flight 93, we all learned that we could be the front lines, the ones to step in when danger is imminent because help has no time to arrive. For many different people in many different ways, things indeed were not the same.
Almost immediately, though, for me personally and in the discourse across mainstream American media and politics, 9/11 was accreting a place in memory as a singularly pivotal moment. I soon began to question what this meant. Did the world itself actually change in some essential and communal way? If so, how? If not, why did it seem so viscerally as if it had?
For me, what appeared to be world-changing disruption came quickly. Prior to that trip, I had enjoyed the relative privilege of a life without direct encounters with violence. In contrast, while traveling home from Italy, I was alert to the possibility of sudden, unavoidable, deadly threat. I remember fixating in an airport food court on a plush toy abandoned face-down on a nearby chair, which I imagined could disguise as an explosive. I remember, while on a plane, considering then quickly suppressing the thought that a bomb triggered in mid-flight might be so swiftly damaging that, without warning, I could simply cease to exist.
Yet, writing now twenty years later, I know that my relative privilege persisted and direct encounters with violence have, so far, remained absent. It would seem, then, that the world for me post-9/11 was pretty much as it had been pre-9/11. But what about my altered perception of danger? My acute fear of imminent harm did not last, but what might come of my realization, under duress, that a world I once knew as acceptably safe and predictable could not necessarily be viewed as such?
The American Dream is characterized by optimism, self-determination, and belief in a just world. The post-9/11 popular culture, however, has been preoccupied with existential crisis, personal vulnerability, and moral ambivalence.
Millions witnessed the events of 9/11 unfold from the distance of television coverage, all situated as I was: Unprepared for what happened; abruptly attuned to the inescapable harm to victims and survivors not very different from ourselves; and apprehensive about what might come next. Subsequent years, so far, have yielded additional terrorist acts on American soil, such as the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon and the 2015 shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. However, few have been committed or inspired by foreign actors and none on the scale of 9/11. It would seem, then, that the post-9/11 world did not entail a permanent and pervasive susceptibility to horrors unknown pre-9/11. Still, as I wondered about myself, I wondered also about others: What might come of a radically-enhanced perception of vulnerability, of a world less safe and less predictable than once thought?
I sought answers by enrolling in a PhD program in American Studies. An interdisciplinary field, American Studies explores how individuals and communities identify, act, and are acted upon. Specifically, I looked at how accessible entertainment, such as film and television, engaged a wide array of viewers in making meaning of 9/11. After all, stories attract large audiences only if those stories make sense to many people, and if their themes, pressures, and conflicts resonate widely. If I wanted to know whether 9/11 changed dominant American perceptions of vulnerability, post-9/11 American popular culture would indicate our current fears, anxieties, and hopes — or “the things that worry us these days,” to use the words of film director Christopher Nolan.
It turned out that, within a national community known for its dreams of an ever-brighter future — for an American Dream characterized by optimism, self-determination, and belief in a just world — post-9/11 popular culture was preoccupied with existential crisis, personal vulnerability, and moral ambivalence. Movies like “The Dark Knight” and TV shows like “Breaking Bad” portrayed flawed protagonists facing no-win scenarios whose ethical conundrums thwarted facile narrative closure. Without such closure, viewers could recognize how complex, consequential decisions might require negotiation and compromise, often without a clear “right” choice, in terms of both what is morally correct and what will produce a desired outcome.
In sum, instead of clear-cut heroes securing unambiguously happy endings, our entertainments entangled us with questionable characters caught in ethical quagmires and, ultimately, bound for a dark fate. In effect, these stories communicated what Ramsay Snow/Bolton (Iwan Rheon) of “Game of Thrones” said to someone he was torturing, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” After witnessing thousands die unexpectedly and unavoidably on 9/11, even from the distance of news reports, many Americans were working through grim doubts about a hostile world posing ominous odds amidst unwelcome, unpromising options.
CALIBRATING OUR RESPONSE TO COLLECTIVE TRAUMA
Following an individual trauma, survivors lose a once deeply-embedded confidence in the world as benign, a place where they can feel generally safe, and meaningful, a place where their choices can have intended, rather than unpredictable or inconceivable, consequences. Similarly, after the cultural trauma of 9/11, Americans wrestled with how to live in and understand a world now appearing as capriciously threatening and strange, even inexplicable. In other words, as a cultural trauma, 9/11 disrupted shared beliefs so fundamental to dominant American culture that the culture itself took a blow. Instead of nodding to a bright future recognizable to (if not attainable by) all, American popular culture evidenced anguish about a precarious present. The old rules seemed no longer to apply, and we needed to adjust — but how much and in what ways?
Part of the difficulty in answering that question lies in the fact that the old rules never did apply. The American Dream was always just that: A dream. It was something we could imagine and aspire to, but for so many people, it would not become real, and not for lack of trying. Before 9/11, life could be hard — harder for some than for others — but never with a guarantee that we would always be safe and in control. Before or after a trauma, the world isn’t always benign and it isn’t always meaningful. Nor, though, is it always perilous and always confounding. Instead, the world is something less familiar and comforting than our illusions reassure us, but more familiar and comforting than a trauma can imply. Part of post-trauma recovery is calibration: How to manage a realistic sense of existential ease, a sense attuned to actual and plausible, rather than abstract and conceivable, risk.
For individuals, such post-trauma recovery requires first that safety and agency be established to counter the terror and disempowerment they had experienced. After 9/11, though government policies and rhetoric led the way, this effort involved us all. “The Dark Knight” dramatized this responsibility in a culminating conflict endangering civilians transported on two ferries. These citizens of Gotham, who so far had let others take dubious measures on their behalf in the name of public safety, faced point-blank the dilemma of either murdering those on the other boat to save their own lives or accepting that those others would likely murder them. Yet, all ended up enduring mortal peril to themselves after flinching at the prospect of intentionally, personally, killing other human beings — exhibiting not only integrity, but also a decisive intervention to halt the movie’s escalating violence. That is, on a pair of ships called “The Spirit” and “The Liberty,” those in peril performed what might very well be the spirit of liberty: Ordinary people making difficult decisions, guided not by the temptation under democracy to put their individual interests first, but by the opportunity under democracy to advance the greater, more just and more sustainable, good of the larger community.
Of course, “The Dark Knight” is fiction. The 9/11 attacks showcased an outsized example of what there was to dread in the world, and certainly much worse can happen through more robust technologies of harm. Many people in many professions — from foreign policy to the military and beyond — hazarded what they had to give to prevent the worst for others.
Yet, not all reactions to 9/11 were necessary or effective to protect and regroup. Even so, the post-cultural trauma ethos of fear, distrust, confusion, and vulnerability provided fertile ground for public endorsement of any response touted as such: Not according to a sober review of prudent courses of action, but in thrall to the horrific “what if’s” that 9/11 had insinuated in all our imaginations. Critics of post-9/11 policies might point fingers at politicians, but politicians respond to their voters. With a representative government, we all have a role to play.
And since 9/11, there have been other significant cultural shifts: Progressing climate change; intensifying partisan politics; advancing activism on racial justice, sexual violence, and other social issues, as well as an ongoing pandemic. The dominant American paradigm and the perspective most Americans share to make sense of the world, has fractured. We still have the chance to pick up its pieces and decide how to put them back together, to recreate a common vision with common values and commitments — something in which more of us are invested enough to give as well as we take.
BENDING THE TRAJECTORY OF TRAUMA
A human life is a precious, precarious adventure. Trauma calls attention to the precarity, to our mortality. Psychologically, it stuns because it’s a revelation — because the world that trauma lays bare differs substantially from the world we have been taking for granted. Thinking again about “The Dark Knight’s” “spirit of liberty,” there is something compelling to me about the idea that we, the people, participate in the trajectory of historical events that make the world what it is. And we can bend that trajectory toward a constructive direction that manages consequences and contains harm, rather than a destructive direction marred by unintended consequences and proliferating harm.
The seminar instructor in me can offer no definitive answers for precisely how this works or what any of us should do. Rather, I can only encourage questions, a posture of questioning, and an open-ended call for ongoing reflection about what any of us could do. After 9/11, but not only in relation to 9/11; whether at work or at home; when socializing or volunteering or lobbying or voting; before deciding to run for office or to switch careers; while drafting a course of action for a large agency or a local activist hub, etc. No matter the scope or the scale, through individual interactions as well as broad policy interventions, questioning what we can do has power. It involves all of us not only in post-traumatic recovery, but also in the preemption of the next potential trauma. Questioning ourselves inhibits the complacency of expecting someone else to come up with clear-cut, easy-to-implement, surefire solutions to fraught, complex challenges, without ever considering the fine print that adds qualifiers and disclaimers to any purportedly simple solutions.
I am both intimidated and empowered by this possibility. As a citizen of a nation with a participatory government, when a crisis hits, I can’t just pass the buck to someone else, maybe a public servant or — during a pandemic — a medical professional, and figure they’ll do what they have to do and it’ll all work out in the end. The buck stops with me — and all my fellow citizens as well. To quote Augustine of Hippo, whose religious order founded the university where I worked in 2001: “We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.” We all could contribute remarkably during remarkable times.
Christine Muller is a writer, researcher, and educator based in the Philadelphia area. She is the author of September 11, 2001 as a Cultural Trauma: A Case Study Through Popular Culture.
“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of Sept. 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here.