The events of September 11th 2001 amplified but did not create longstanding social anxieties within the US.
While there can be no doubt that the horrific September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon incited a great amount of anxiety around the world, such emotions were not new to the US population. I intend to show how social anxiety existed in America long before 9/11 took place; it acted as a catalyst increasing the rate of apprehension in the early 21st Century and intensified on-going fears rather than suddenly creating them. Indeed, it is important for us to examine the event as part of a wider spectrum of trauma, as one of the many states of damage in the years preceding and following it. I will analyse various films made before and after 9/11 which depict traumatic and apocalyptic themes. Subsequently illustrating how social anxieties surrounding disaster were channelled through such cultural outlets before September 11th even took place and how these fears have since been dealt with.
Furthermore, the media served to significantly raise 9/11 above many other horrific events in history and therefore anxiety was amplified even further within the US. Television viewers could watch the second plane hit the South Tower in real time, witness around 200 people jumping to their deaths and see the collapsing World Trade Center disappearing from the New York skyline. For Americans, to “see” such carnage in their own metropolis and away from a movie screen was something new and difficult for many to comprehend. Therefore, while 9/11 amplified longstanding social anxieties within the US, the media’s ability to present photos and video footage created new kinds of anxiety based on real rather than abstract notions.
Despite initial claims that 9/11 seemed to announce a new world order, one dominated by terror and thought unimaginable before that date, more recent evaluations consider the importance of well-established patterns of social anxiety within the US. The terrorists responsible for 9/11 came to occupy the analogous symbolic role of the “other” who serves to confirm the “traditional” American social codes. This is not a new concept, throughout the Cold War (1946-1991) the Communist threat of ‘Reds’ occupied this position, therefore we can clearly see how anxiety over alternative cultures was present before hatred of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, occupation of this role is not based solely on centuries of Orientalist thinking, moreover, the horrific 9/11 attacks, the 2004 Madrid bombings and the 2005 London transit attacks are what have rapidly inflamed the view of Islam as the absolute, evil enemy.
Social turbulence in the US was also present long before September 11th 2001. The second half of the 20th Century was an extremely unstable and ambivalent period for the American people in terms of socio-cultural as well as economic change; therefore anxiety was cultivated and intensified during this time. In the 1960s, the African American Civil Rights Movement hit high gear as “mass protests created turmoil and brought world opinion to bear on discrimination and racism” (Duncan 28). This climate of fear and anxiety resulted in race riots occurring sporadically throughout 1964-68, peaking with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the Senator Robert F.Kennedy that same year. From fears over atomic power and the H-Bomb, to the changing role of women due in the feminist movement 1963-82, disputes over gay rights, the trauma of Watergate in the 1970s, the demoralizing Vietnam War, the Energy Crisis of 1973, the Recession 1969-70 and the Cold War, it is not all surprising that this all gave rise to a culture steeped in paranoia and uncertainty. Reagan, who was the US President from 1981-1989, endeavoured to bring back a sense of Christian Conservatism, he ensured a peaceful end to the Cold War and was arguably one of the most popular US presidents in the public polls. However, in 1992 at the republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan’s keynote address “decried social changes relating to sexuality, the family and society, declaring that America was now in a culture war over social values” (Thompson 8). Therefore, I would argue that the anxieties created in the years before Reagan were still prevalent and on the rise. Many people were also beginning to challenge traditional notions of the nuclear family, increasing divorce rates in the 1990s and an escalation in the number of single parent families went against any reassertion of family values projected into American society in the previous decade. It is clear that such instability meant an event such as 9/11 would prove fatal to the confidence of the American people.
However, “the difference of the war on terror from previous 20th Century struggles, such as the Cold War, is that while the enemy was once clearly identified as the existing communist system, the terrorist threat is spectral” (Zizek ‘On 9/11’). In other words, America’s inability to control terrorism or, in the immediate days following September 11th, categorically know who was directly responsible for the attacks, is why social anxiety has been amplified even further despite an accumulation of setbacks in the 20th Century. “We are entering a new era of paranoiac warfare in which the greatest task will be to identify the enemy and his weapons” (Zizek 37), therefore it is easy to see how countless 9/11 conspiracy theories were published, they stemmed from a ripe breeding ground of social paranoia surrounding the unknown. The desire to personally de-code can be seen in films such as The Da Vinci Code (2003) and interestingly, “sales of prophesy literature increased by 71% in the weeks immediately following 9/11” (Thompson 6). Evidently people did want to understand why 9/11 were took place. The film Contagion (2011), released just two days before the ten year anniversary of 9/11, follows the rapid progress of a deadly virus spreading throughout the world. Conspiracy theories surround possibilities of a cure and anxiety develops not just in America, but throughout the world due to suspected bioterrorism. This exceptionally smart film evokes the same mass panic and loss of social order resulting from state terrorism but touches on a new strand of terror, one which is completely invisible until attack, and is therefore limitless in its catastrophic capability. Consequently, we can see how fears over indiscernible attack are becoming more popular to portray in films, rather than the more conventional disaster themes projected pre 9/11 movies such as Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998). However, 2012 (2009), The Core (2003) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) show that such doomsday plots are still going strong as special effects continue to improve and become more ‘realistic’. Society’s fears and anxieties over weapons of mass destruction or the inability to control unpredictable terrorism can be channelled and displaced through the prism of film.
I believe the anxieties felt by many Americans before 9/11 were less to do with foreign policy failures, the majority of people focused predominantly on their individual lives. The signature catch-phrase “greed is good” dominated the fast paced, financial world in the 1980s, epitomised in the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street. With insider trading scandals on the rise and the introduction of sub primes mortgages, America was brewing a recipe for disaster. The American public became increasingly in debt towards to the end of the 20th Century, housing prices increased at the same time as home ownership due to over confidence and the gap between rich and poor was quickly widening. This social crisis in the US, reaching its pinnacle in the mid-1990s as a result of increasing poverty and inequality, led to a great deal of social anxiety in the years preceding 9/11.
Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, which was published in 1991, evokes this sense of “blankness” (26) which many people felt in their confusion over status and inequality. Paranoia as well as alienation from self and society dominates this text throughout. Therefore, it serves as an interesting literary example of the social apprehensions felt before 9/11. The claustrophobia and sickness experienced in the stuffy hotel room, in the unknown country, evoke fear of foreign cultures, but also convey a sense of self-loathing through the narrator’s purging of his sickness. When the narrator says, “I see myself” (Shawn 5) in the bug staring up at him from the bathroom floor. I could not help but be reminded of a similar inversion of perspective in Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard About Iraq. In The Fever, the narrator gains “a moment of insight” (Shawn 5) into his supercilious lifestyle and as we read Weinberger’s montage of shocking facts, we are also forced to see situations from another viewpoint. Furthermore, Wallace Shawn’s essay The Quest for Superiority, which was written in 2008, further echoes themes demonstrated in The Fever. Therefore, Shawn’s work exemplifies how similar anxieties were pertinent before and after 9/11. There is a serious preoccupation and worry about the ability to differentiate between monster and victim, good and evil, wealthy and “unobtrusive” (Shawn 21). While Americans have always felt superior to other nations, “our problem is that we’re not superior… and [when realised] we become uncomfortable and scared” (Shawn 22) and it is this anxiety about status and vulnerability that has grown in significance since 9/11. The US projection of superiority onto the world canvas has led to a great deal of paranoia about maintaining that level of power. Indeed, Bin Laden and the Taliban were funded and supported by US anti-Soviet guerrilla movements in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The desire to quell Russia’s supremacy in Afghanistan has had serious ramifications in recent years. So, is the US “fighting its own excess” (Zizek 27) here? The desire to control and be the most powerful and most superior nation of all has ultimately left the US funding terrorists and shooting itself in the foot, as it were.
The American cinema of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century was full of global catastrophe films portraying traumatic and apocalyptic themes. “A huge meteor is on a collision course with earth. A giant radioactive creature threatens Manhattan as Godzilla goes on a rampage. Volcanoes spew lava and huge tidal waves threaten cities” (Thompson 1), sound familiar? We are now forced to ask the question, did the Americans actually desire a catastrophe? The obvious answer is of course not, but as Kierkegaard stated “we desire what we fear, but fear what we desire” (qtd in Thompson 18). I believe such cinematic attempts were a violent reaction against social unreality, a desire to escape the numbness and “immersion in our ideological universe” (Zizek 9). Social fears were epitomised in the lead up to the Millennium. Many people began to store food, water and survival materials, businesses anxiously awaited the effects of the New Year on their computer systems and the Clinton administration secretly arrested a group of individuals suspected of carrying out terrorist attacks in Los Angeles and New York. Once again, media aided the hype through American popular culture, sensationalist journalism and Hollywood disaster movies, thus amplifying the paranoia in US society. Long standing apocalyptic anxieties proved trivial in 2000, by September 11th 2001, fears of attack were realised, “America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise” (Zizek 16). I was shocked during my research to learn how American intelligence specialists requested advice in handling terrorists from Hollywood film-makers, such as Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. deSouza, in the wake of September 11th. Moreover, they were also solicited to help in the ‘War Against Terror’ by getting the right ideological messages across in their films. The absurdity of this scenario reveals the importance placed on cinema in modern society and how to a large extent culture precedes politics.
The first signs of “apocalyptic dread”(2) as Thompson puts it, came about in the science fiction of the Cold war and peaked in the 1990s in a flurry of disaster films. Fight Club (1999) shows two high rise buildings collapse after being blown up, it also explores the paranoiac fantasy of the American Dream and suburban security. The image of the sinking boat in Titanic (1997), itself a symbol of 19th Century industrial civilization, with its passengers jumping from the tall structure echo those who jumped from the towering symbol of capitalism on September 11th. Like the Titanic, America, and its symbols such as the World Trade Center, were thought to be unsinkable. The destruction of the White House and Empire State Building in Independence Day (1996) portrays scenes very reflective of 9/11. However, what is most interesting about this particular film is the uncanny similarity of the characters’ reactions to the alien invasion with the American government’s reaction to 9/11. The unquestionably ‘evil’ aliens attack the ‘good’ Americans, and this binary is never challenged, we are never able to understand the motives of the aliens. As the supposedly sublime incarnation of civilisation, America appeals to other world powers for their aid, to unite through negative cohesion against the enemy of humanity. Such rigid definitions of good and evil do not quell anxiety, instead they amplify feelings of paranoia in society. Indeed, such clear cut boundaries force people to question where they and their government’s actions stand within such peripheries. Zikek effectively appropriates this point when he refers to one of Bush’s speeches in which he mentions a young girl whose father is a fighter pilot in Afghanistan . The girl wrote that she was prepared to sacrifice her father for the good America, if it was necessary (43). Say we were to turn the tables and hear another little girl saying the same thing on Arabic television, how would we react? Indeed, many would respond with condemnation of fundamentalist and extreme ideals which are even projected onto the younger echelons of society. Why should the implicit views of American children in affirming heroism in death be any different to a Muslim supporting a suicide mission? Obviously, many fundamentalists desire more than destruction of the enemy. They are against women’s rights, freedom of expression, democracy, music, dancing, homosexuality and basic independence which is too oppressive. Yet, if Western society is forced to simplify between good and evil are we not also quelling independent thinking?
I strongly believe that the amplification in anxiety after 9/11 came partly from pressure to agree with such binaries of good and evil, of suspecting all Muslims as potential terrorists, as invisible and senseless extremists. When terrorists are more and more “described in the terms of a viral infection, as an attack of invisible bacteria” (Zizek 141) one cannot help recall similar descriptions given to Jews by Nazis. Furthermore, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration embarked on a devastating bombing campaign in Afghanistan which killed up to 5000 civilians and it was reported that 80 000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the recent conflict (Weinberger 58). So, hypocrisy over what is right seems to reign on both ‘sides’ and it is important that we actively choose what to believe as individuals.
After 9/11, Americans experienced as Morpheus ironically puts it in the Wachowski brothers film The Matrix (1999), a sudden awakening to “the desert of the real”. In this unknown territory, previous anxieties were heightened due to violent and sudden revelation, they transitioned from material, virtual reality to actual, real reality. Neo and the American people experience the Lacanian Real as a nightmarish, desolate landscape. On 9/11, the Hollywood fantasy of violence, or as Alain Badiou identifies as the “Passion for the Real” (qtd. in Zizek 5), coincided with the actual event, therefore the ability to detach one’s self from on screen disaster was no longer possible. American society was used to detaching the Real from the Symbolic, there are limitless options to purchase products that are deprived of their malignant properties “coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties, as warfare without warfare” (Zikek 10). Therefore, when the events of 9/11 took place, many people found it difficult to fully connect to what they were seeing on TV because they were used to seeing disaster on screen without actual disaster. New Yorkers were stranded in the “Desert of the Real” (Matrix), while those who saw it on television were “corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots of the collapsing towers could not help but be reminiscent of the most breath-taking scenes in big catastrophe productions” (Zizek 15). Movies had uncannily prepared us for what we would see on the TV that day, at least in terms of an emotional response. We have become trained to respond to specific images and spectacular shots on the screen so when we saw it on September 11th, it was eerily familiar, it was “a special effect which outdid all others” (Zizek 11). One reporter, Daniel Jeffreys, spoke of the event in relation to Hollywood disaster films. “An emergency crew moved lights into position on a huge crane… they were the type usually used by Hollywood film crews but this was no movie, and even if it had been, nobody would have believed the plot…people can no longer dismiss as a Hollywood fantasy the idea of a terrorist attack using nuclear or biological weapons” (‘Day I Walked Through Hell’). Other journalists also noted that “this was the real thing… it was like watching a disaster movie…the unbelievable was happening” (Waterhouse ‘The day the US died a little’) further emphasizing this link. The shock that reverberated from that day was not from the event itself but from the confrontation of a catastrophic, cultural fantasy becoming Real. Jeffrey stated, “I would say that being close to ground zero was like Dante’s inferno but the scene was so much worse than anything imagined in literature” (‘Day I Walked Through Hell’). Zizek argues the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of imagined reality is “the Real in its extreme violence” (6).
Accessing what is Real in our society can be difficult. As we become increasingly reliant on machines and electronic communication we are forced into virtual modes of interaction . Indeed, it was reported only a few days ago that a man was able to cross from Canada into America using his i-pad as digital identification. As we move away from real communication between physical people into a reality that is artificially constructed and maintained, it is not surprising that society has a “Passion for the Real” (qtd. in Zizek 5). People wish to anchor themselves in something concrete. Therefore, it is interesting that disaster movies, another virtual experience, seem to channel this desire for catastrophe. I would argue that the characters’ close proximity to death is perhaps the ultimate experience of risk, the epitomised state of life at its most intense. Indeed, to fantasize about such risk is exciting, but it is not something that people actually want to experience. Watching it on a screen is a far safer option. Precisely because 9/11 was Real but also depicted on TV, people were unable to process it into what they understood as reality. The collapsing towers are a haunting image, one that is both fascinating and repulsive at once. As Zizek has argued, “the problem with the 20th Century ‘Passion for the Real’ was not that it was a passion for the Real, but that it was a fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real” (24). Films made before 9/11 could depict collapsing buildings, terrorist attacks and the end of the world, but when the Real event took place – the effect was that paranoia and anxiety was amplified to an even higher level.
Paranoia about what is Real is epitomised in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). The main character is played by Jim Carrey, a small town clerk who is in fact the ‘hero’ of a 24 hour TV show. He believes the life he leads in the consumerist paradise town to be real, yet all the people around him are actors or extras, even the basic elements of life such as the sky and sun are fake. For Truman Burbank “virtual reality [is] experienced as reality without being so” (Zizek 11) and therefore he begins to experience ‘real reality’ itself as a virtual entity. This hyper-reality he lives in “unreal, substance less, deprived of material inertia” (Zizek 12), a description appropriate to the homogenous nature of American suburbs or the fabricated and claustrophobic shopping malls. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar addressed the American people on 25th September 2001 and said “You accept everything your government says, whether it is true or false… can’t you think for yourselves? It would be better for you to use your own sense and understanding” (qtd in Zizek 57). A hypocritical comment considering the lack of autonomy given to the Afghans themselves, but taken out of context and in light of films such as The Truman Show, the message to wake up and resist ‘zombification’, is very relevant.
The traumatic events of September 11th also resonate in films made after the attacks. Apocalyptic dread took a new direction, focusing more closely on anxieties surrounding the rise of terrorism. Spider-Man (2002) illustrates the initial response of the American public to pull together as a community after a disaster. Peter Parker in his last lines says, “with great power comes great responsibility” (Spider-Man), reflecting the American, macho attitude of fearless superiority in a battle to dutifully destroy evil. This first film illustrates the initial attempt for the US to put their anxiety to one side and stay heroic. A similar attitude is shown in the newspapers from the days following September 11th. The Daily Mail from September 13th reported that “amid the devastation, they refuse to give up hope of finding signs of life” (Williams ‘The Tomb’), unfortunately and un-surprisingly hardly anyone was pulled out from the debris. The re-discovery of American pride in the days and weeks following 9/11 shows society’s inability to grasp the whole picture and the tendency to “fully assume one’s symbolic mandate, which comes on the scene after the perplexity caused by some historical trauma…what could be more natural than taking refuge in the innocence of a firm ideological identification” (Zizek 45).
The events of September 11th were a wakeup call to the US to realise its vulnerability in the world where no nation is indestructible. The choice to reassert traditional ideologies, vow revenge and wave their flags in the face of adversity conveyed America’s belief in its power and invisibility. Spider-Man 2 (2004) illustrates a reduction in this sort of confidence, Spider-Man himself (who seems to symbolise America), admits he has made mistakes, which is perhaps reflective of America’s regrets over Afghanistan and realisation over the casualties that will occur in the Iraq war which began in 2003. In comparison to the first film with its one tracked desire for revenge, this film offers an alternative, Aunt May says “I don’t think it’s for us to say whether a person deserves to live or die” (Spider-Man 2) and many Americans were also beginning to see alternative ways to react to 9/11. “Enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating relation” (Zizek 49) was what the US should have strived for instead of reasserting its role as “global policeman” (Zizek 49). If we simply condemn 9/11 we will be included in the socially constructed role of America as the innocent victim under the attack of the ‘Evil Other’. Zizek argues that “the only appropriate stance is unconditional solidarity with all victims… the terrifying death of each individual is absolute and incomparable” (52), and although it is true that other mass demonstrations of violence throughout history have been on a larger scale, it is vital that we take each event separately and do not keep comparing the first world with the third world, good with evil, us with them. When Bush told America “This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail… the battle will take time to resolve but make no mistake about it, we will win” (qtd in Williams ‘The Tomb) he was certainly not on this forward thinking wavelength .
The media helped to amplify anxiety over September 11th. The reason 9/11 was ‘privileged’ over other catastrophes such as the Rwanda genocide in 1993, where over 800 000 people were brutally slaughtered by Tutsis, was due to media elevation surrounding the event and the accessibility the public had to watch it live. Watching a documentary called ‘The Falling Man’, gave me insight into the media’s impact on reactions to 9/11. The poignant images of those who chose to jump from the burning towers were the most public displays of death that day. The specific photo of ‘The Falling Man’ caused mixed reactions among the public when it was published. The man is pointing downwards and looks arguably peaceful in the shot, there is no sign of blood, and he does not look in pain. This eerie moment captured before certain death attracted and repelled people all at once, in the same way that the image of the burning towers on the TV screen did, “when we get too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns into disgust at the real of the bare flesh” (Zizek 6). That absolute and intense moment of life captured in the midst of death caused anger and is reflective of the passion for the real becoming too much to bear. One photographer from the documentary said, ‘seeing it through my lens allowed me to separate it’ (‘The Falling Man’) emphasizing how the prism of a screen is what he and others try to use to detach themselves from the actual event. Indeed, Zizek talks of a “derealisation after the World Trade Center collapse” (12), in other words, this screen apparition entered our reality, “it is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality” (Zizek 16). Furthermore, the descriptions of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and abused as described in Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard About Iraq, the videos of hostages being brutally murdered and “terrorist warlord” (Williams ‘The Tomb’) Bin Laden’s appearances on camera, all point to the amplification of social anxiety due to the Real nature of what is being depicted. Donald Rumsfeld said in 2006 that this was the first war to be fought in an era of “emails, blogs, cell-phones, BlackBerrys, instant messaging, digital cameras, a global internet with no inhibitions, hand held video cameras, talk radio, 24 hour news broadcasts, and satellite television” (qtd in Hill 3). This new war environment meant that violence could be everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Although the much anticipated transition into the new millennium passed uneventfully, the 9/11 attacks accelerated and intensified social anxiety that had been accumulating during the 20th Century. The American involvement in the Middle Eastern and Afghanistan wars, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, increasingly aggressive airport security and an increase in public surveillance all illustrate mounting apprehension of another terrorist attack like 9/11. I believe it is imperative that we trace such apprehensions back to previous episodes in American history if we are to properly understand how and why anxiety was further amplified on that New York Morning of September 11th 2001.
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— “Reappropriations: The Lesson of Mullah Omar”. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002. Print. 33-57.
—“Conclusion: The Smell of Love”. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002. Print. 135-154.
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