Like most people my age, I have a lot of complex feelings about 9/11.
I was a freshman in college when it happened, living away from home for the first time. My grandfather was dying, I was thrown off kilter by the huge changes in my life already, and then the entire world changed completely, and pretty much everyone my age has been completely off ever since. Watching 3000 people die live on national television while your prefrontal cortex is still developing does that to a person.
And I don’t really want to go into those feelings as they stand right now because pretty much everyone everywhere is going to be talking about that today. Instead, I want to talk about a few pieces of media I’ve been diving into as kind of a memorial to the whole thing. Some of these, I watch and read every year, and some of them, I’ve only just discovered, so without further adieu:
Lindsay Ellis is a leftist video essayist and author that I’ve been following for… oh, probably around a decade now. She did a series about five years ago called “Loose Canon” that explored how certain characters are portrayed in different pieces of media (for example, looking at different portrayals of Santa Claus through the years). As part of that series, she wanted to look at a particular historical event, and 9/11 won the poll among her supporters on Patreon. And it’s a lot.
(note that if you’re clicking those links and aren’t familiar with her: she is very liberal and does not have any nice things to say about a lot of the right wing politicians involved in that day or its aftermath. Also some of it is funny. If either of those things will upset you, do not click those links)
In summary, as with everything else, 9/11 rocked the media we’ve produced and consumed in the 20 years since. Some of my favorite points:
- Before 9/11 we had a lot of films where we were really into seeing stuff get destroyed. I think we had about five years in the mid- to late- 90s where destroying stuff on film was basically the best way for a film to become a blockbuster. Shoot, when Independence Day had a bunch of trailers showing the destruction of the White House, THAT was what got everyone talking. And now… well, we’re not so into that. We all sit with the uncomfortable knowledge of no, that’s not what that sort of wholesale destruction looks like or sounds like. And we’re understandably not super interested in watching it unfold on the big screen.
- Films directly made about 9/11 don’t really do well, critically or with audiences. We watched it happen in real time; seeing the events dramatized feels weird. Maybe it’s a “too soon” sort of thing, but it just has never resonated with Americans as a whole (which is not to say that nobody enjoyed those films, or that there’s anything wrong with you if you did, just that in general, people weren’t really into them).
- Similarly, films that come too close to 9/11 in their imagery and color palette tend to go over like a bowl of lead. If you can separate the imagery a bit and the events a bit, we tend to be more comfortable with that as a whole.
- Unrelated to Americans, India uses 9/11 a lot in their movies, mostly as a way of coping with their own terrorist attack in 2008. I’m not sure how these movies go over in India; they’re unintentionally hilarious in a very dark way here in the States.
And from that film, we get the book I’m slowly working my way through…
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature back in its day, and while it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination (I can only manage a chapter or two a night because it’s heavy stuff and makes you really need to chew on it), it’s really good. The book serves as a biography of the major figures who contributed to the creation of al-Qaeda and dives into their motivations and psychology. It acknowledges the mistakes made by western countries leading up to 9/11 while simultaneously not blaming those countries (e.g., the British occupation of Egypt was beyond shitty and definitely contributed to the radicalization of several figures in al-Qaeda, but Great Britain isn’t to blame for the attacks).
One thing that’s been a hard swallow for me with this book is learning that before he was fully radicalized, Osama bin Laden was a really loving and involved father. One particular passage talks about how his second son was born with hydrocephalus and though he survived, he was left mentally disabled and prone to violence and emotional outbursts. And despite this, bin Laden insisted on making sure that son was involved whenever he spent time with his children. He was a monster by every definition, but monsters are made from men, which I think is the ultimate lesson of the book: not that terrorists are just like you and me, but rather that radicalization is not something that just happens to That Guy Over There. It’s something that we can all be vulnerable to, given the right political climate and circumstances.
And related to the videos above…
This is another Lindsay Ellis video, and while it’s not about 9/11 directly, I think it does a good job of sorting through a lot of the emotions and public mentalities of the years that followed. It’s wild to remember that after 9/11, we were all so traumatized and hurt/angry/afraid that we wanted to lash out at anyone and anything that might have been slightly a threat to us and our way of life. Which is not to say that al-Qaeda shouldn’t have been rooted out and destroyed (the above book, while helping to explain a lot of the psychology at work, has very solidly confirmed for me that something had to be done about them) but rather that we went at it kind of the way a toddler does when throwing a tantrum. We were sloppy, a lot of innocent lives were pointlessly lost, and we really didn’t know what we were doing.
Despite this, both the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war were really popular in their time, and even when their popularity dipped, people didn’t tend to be as ragingly against them as they were against Vietnam for whatever reason. Like people were against both wars, but the scenes of protest that we recognize from the 60s and 70s just weren’t there as much, and neither was the protest music. And that’s pretty interesting to me–I think that probably because of 9/11, it was hard to find a way to say, “I really can’t stand the military-industrial complex, and I think both of these wars are terrible ideas,” without someone calling you unpatriotic. Shoot, it’s STILL hard to say that without a handful of people popping up to “well actually…” at you.
Anyway, this video doesn’t get into the nuances of that discussion so much as it explores the little protest music there was and how the themes in that music are still kind of around today and how we probably won’t ever escape them.
So. That’s my 9/11 media dump for you. This was going to just be a Facebook post, but then it got absurdly long, so now it’s here. Enjoy.