I remember the day very vividly. In the middle of my middle school math class, the teacher was told to turn on the radio. The entire class stopped as we heard the announcement. Planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York.
My old friend and I were picked up from school. We were told by his parents, “No one is safe.” Every television channel was playing the same footage on a loop for the entire day. I was only twelve, and although I had experienced the cold hand of death on a personal level, the sheer concentration of it was all too new for me.
In years prior I had assumed a perfect invulnerability, this was America after all. Things like that didn’t happen here. They happened in other places in the world, sure. But not here. Not in our own backyard.
But that invulnerability was lost. We could be reached. We were not impervious. That’s exactly what those who carried out the attack wanted to us to know.
For those directly and tangentially impacted, September 11th was an end. For the public at large, however, it was a beginning. It was the beginning of a long road towards the so-called “War on Terror”. It was the institution of the modern equivalent of the Panopticon. Instead of the Panopticon’s watch tower located in the very center of a circular prison, we were instead passing legislation such as the Patriot Act and quietly setting up PRISM in the background.
Losing the Way
We were very willing to trade away our civil liberties for that supposed security. Criticisms of the Patriot Act were muted, and it was passed in legislation. It was later extended during the Obama administration. Finally, on June 1, 2015, the act had expired. This was swiftly followed by a modification known as the USA Freedom act. While it removed the NSA’s bulk phone data collection, critics claimed many surveillance programs remained in place. For most, however, these questions about the balance between privacy and security remain out of sight and out of mind.
It was also how I was introduced to Islam, and given that mainstream discussion of that particular religion was only present after September 11th had occurred, I’d say it’s a fair assumption that it was when the American public became widely cognizant of Islam.
The image painted by the media at large, particularly conservative ones, was extraordinarily unflattering. But even that’s putting it mildly. Now the words “Islam” and “terrorist” were permanently coupled in the minds of the public. Indeed, it is de facto assumed that terrorism is prefixed with “Islamic”. But does our perception match reality?
No. As it turns out, our extensive coverage of Muslim terrorists has everything to do with constructing a “good versus evil” narrative, which may work well for Star Wars but has devastating impacts when actual people are caught in the crossfire. As a journalist, this is particularly loathsome to me.
However, when I hear September 11th discussed in popular culture today it is usually tied to conspiracy theories. Al-Qaeda being rightfully responsible for the attacks is unsatisfactory to 54% of World Opinion Poll’s 2008 survey on the subject. While Al-Qaeda is pinpointed the most out of all sources, the other combined sources dwarfed them by a slight margin.
That number should be 0%. We have had a cavalcade of debunking since the inception of these conspiracy theories. However, Thought Catalog’s James Swift makes a salient point:
Those who forget history, the old platitude goes, are destined to repeat it. In this case, the updated maxim is “those who rewrite history are destined to defeat it.” While such fringe, cockamamie conspiracy theories about 9/11 – themselves, trojan horses for a whole host of inherently prejudicial, bigoted and fundamentally insane philosophies – will (hopefully) never become “mainstream,” a great many young people (seriously, you would not believe how many I’m talking about here) do indeed embrace the far-out hypotheses proposed by cranks, dingbats and crackpots like Alex Jones and the producers of propumentary films Zeitgeist and Loose Change as the “real story” behind 9/11.
One’s political perspective changes the names of the actors involved. If you’re far-left, you may embrace the idea that it was done by the US government to justify the invasion of Iraq. If you’re far-right, it was the work of Jewish international bankers.
The claims collapse under mild scrutiny, but because they appeal to people’s preconceptions, they remain. An incorrect idea need not be unappealing, indeed that’s how many nuggets of misinformation stick around in our collective memory. They’re just too seductive to let go.
This irrationality is doubly applied to our efforts on combatting this menace. Despite the fact that we are far more likely to die in a car crash than a terrorist attack, we are not waging war on General Motors or Subaru. It does not inform our political decision-making that way that terrorism does.
Our methods aren’t working. Despite statements to the contrary, Iraq was not a major sponsor of terrorism before the war. Instead, Al-Qaeda’s affiliates swooped in at the opportunity to create chaos when the US came in. They targeted Iraqi civilians and US forces with the intent of sparking a civil war. They knew that there would be legions of vulnerable people, receptive to their cause. Now, we have ISIS.
Einstein said that you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. But that is exactly what we’re doing. The cycle goes unbroken, and I question how long we can afford to do this. I can look ahead and see that there will come a point where the cycle must be broken, I only wish I knew exactly how. Then again, I bet that concern is shared by many others.
In the end, what the reaction to September 11th reveals to me is how we are still bound by our human imperfections. Only by acknowledging that, can we make steps to make life better for people all over the world.